Transitioning From High School to Adulthood

By Alex Smith-Michaels, Executive Director, Milestones Day School

Making the transition from high school to adulthood can be both enormously exciting and stressful for any students. The stress may be magnified for students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) as their maturation level, ability to tolerate or accept help, and their social skill/perspective-taking, executive functioning and meta-cognitive abilities (i.e., reflecting upon thinking/introspection) may lag behind peers’, which may also have an impact upon choices or decisions the student makes. Conversely, people entering adulthood with AS also bring many gifts, and have the potential to be extremely successful with the right transitional supports. Fortunately, Massachusetts is beginning to understand what a critically important time this is for our students, and is now dedicating resources to this transitional period. In addition, many colleges now offer academic and social services specifically for students with AS. By contrast, employment settings often remain competitive and not as disability-friendly as would be ideal. While we work to change society’s attitude toward people with disabilities as a very capable population, for now our students must learn to live and thrive within society’s current norms.


Milestones Day School enrolls all students in our Transition to Adulthood Program (TAP) starting at age 14. Here, students learn transitional skills required to succeed in life post-high school, working toward goals developed in collaboration with their families. Along with their traditional academic subjects, students take classes specifically focused on transitioning to adulthood, and try out different careers by participating in internships in a safe environment at meaningful employment sites. They also have the opportunity to enroll in our college-partner program where, with the support of our staff, students take classes at both college and high school starting in 12th grade. They also participate classes where they learn special study skills needed for success in college classes. By allowing them to practicing employment and college skills prior to leaving high school, Milestones staff can help students determine any additional skills they will need to address, or avoid any pitfalls that may not be apparent in a high school environment alone. Having these types of experiences while still enrolled in high school can greatly boost post-high school success.


The success Milestones has with students is due to our backwards design methodology. Backwards design asks students the question, “What do I want for my future?” Starting with where does the student want to be post high school we plan backwards to ensure that all necessary steps are in place to achieve the student’s transition goals. To “begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination… It means to know where you are going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction” (Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). This model can be employed with any student in any school system.


When using a backwards design model, the following questions may be used as a guide for planning the remainder of high school and setting the student up to achieve his/her goals. Many of the questions below are the same questions all high school students must ponder; for students with disabilities is that planning for success may take more intentionality and direction.

  •         What are my post-graduation desires that will achieve the career and lifestyle I want to have? Immediately after high school, do I want to take a gap year, attend college or a trade school, or enter the work force? It is important to have a focus, although for many students (with or without a disability) the focus may change over the years.
  •         What are my strengths and personality type? Does my profile match the career and lifestyle that I desire?
  •         What are my career interests and aptitude, and do they match? One may have a strong interest in a specific career, but little aptitude. Conversely, one may have a strong aptitude but little interest. (Interest can foster aptitude, but rarely does aptitude foster interest.) Do I know the socially appropriate behaviors needed for of getting a job, i.e.: what to say/not to say during an interview, following up, accepting or declining a job offer, etc.
  •         What type of living arrangements do I desire (live at home, shared apartment, living alone, etc.) If I want to live independently or with minimal support, what types of skills will I need that I may not have now?
  •         How is my knowledge and application of safety skills, e.g.: medication management, medical issues, understanding of strangers and danger, how not to be taken advantage of, and consumer skills.
  •         What life skills do I need to learn, e.g.: banking, mail systems, time management, following directions, knowing what to do if I make a mistake, waiting and patience, phone skills, nutrition, cooking, operating home appliances, filling out medical forms, transportation, and hygiene.
  •         How will I get to work or school? Will I need training in travel skills and/or adaptive driver’s education?
  •         Do I know how to structure free time and have safe, healthy activities that I enjoy doing and can initiate independently? Do I desire and have a balance between solitary activities and activities with friends?
  •         Do I have appropriate social judgment?
  •         Do I want to experience dating and sexuality? Do I understand the nuances of dating, such as: how to tell when someone is expressing interest in me, how to express interest in others, what is expected behavior on a date, appropriate ways to handle rejection, knowing what is appropriate behavior when talking about sex and dating, and understanding STDs and pregnancy prevention.
  •         How well do I understand my diagnosis? Do I know when and how with whom to share this information about my diagnosis? How can I advocate for my needs?
  •         What type of access to government or private support services do I need, if any, and what would I be eligible for?


This a sample timeline; different students might be a on different time-tables.

Step one (8th grade): When students turn 14 within the IEP year, a transition plan should be created by the student, his/her family, and the school staff. The educational team should begin to look at the student’s post-high school goals using the questions above, and then use the backwards design model to outline the specific steps s/he will need to take in order to achieve the goals.  Based upon these goals, a preliminary transition plan is created. Keep in mind that many 14-year-olds do not have answers to the above questions, so the goals in a 14-year-old’s transition plan should be broad.

Step two (between 8-9th grades): A comprehensive transition assessment is conducted. This assessment should look at the above skills for example: functional academic assessment, work place social judgment assessment, vocational interest assessment, vocational aptitude assessment, functional life skills assessment, etc. All of these skills should be assessed through formal testing, observations, interviews, and questionnaires that parents, student, and teachers fill out, as it is important to have all three perspectives. It may also be time for an updated neuropsychological evaluation. In addition, it’s important to start to identify what the family’s needs are for transition. Many of these tests should be repeated in 3 years. If students are not proficient at the safety and independent living skills outlined above, students should also begin taking courses on functional living skills, with peers who have similar challenges and strengths.

Step three (starting between grades 10-11): Students should begin work experiences either in the form of a part time job or internship.  The Team needs to determine the level of support the student’s first work experience should have.  Some students benefit from a 1:1 job coach whereas others need minimal or no support.  In addition, if the student would like to attend college or trade school, investigations should occur now (see what type of disability support the college/trade school has to offer).

Step Four (between ages 18-22) Many students with AS and related conditions need one or more time to complete their high school academic requirements, pass MCAS (or alternatives), and receive needed transition services. If the student is continuing on in high school, classes should focus on functional, independently living skills; the majority of the day should be spent either in dual enrollment (at college) and/or in a work place setting learning and practicing real world employment skills.


Milestones Transitional Program: For more information about transitions goals, parents as their child’s quarterback, and a sample transition plan

Mass Government: When you Turn 18 in Massachusetts

Autism Speaks: Transitioning toolkit

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

DESE: Massachusetts Special Education Transition Resources

Office for Civil Rights: Preparing for post-secondary education

NICHCY: Transition goals in the IEP

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability: guide for individual learning plans