Unlike students without disabilities, he is in no hurry to be independent, be “on his own.” Indeed, he is developmentally delayed: By definition, it just takes him a lot longer to learn and do things than most people his age. Of course we must teach him to be as independent as possible and every day we see that he is learning to do more. But 21 seems more and more like a completely arbitrary cut-off point for the world that we and many others have built for Charlie to end.
Charlotte Moore, author of a wonderful memoir of her two autistic sons, George and Sam, makes this very argument about the need to extend education for autistic students to the age of 21. Sam is 19 and Moore writes of looking back at his years in school as a “golden age.” His reaction to the loss of his “purpose-built special-needs environment” was what I suspect Charlie’s will be: Sam became “aggressive and destructive, as he always does in response to stress.” Moore has found herself “reinventing the wheel.” She knows what Sam needs based on his successful school experience but even with a “fairly hefty budget from social services,” there are not enough funds to provide for all the things — speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy — that helped him so much. Her older son, George, who is more verbal and has more academic abilities, has been doing well at a Mount Camphill Community, where he will live for three years; this program, though, does not provide the level of supervision George needs (or that Charlie will need).
Moore argues that autism education should extend till the age of 25 and I heartily agree:
The cut-off point for educational provision is modelled on neurotypical development. How much research has there been on patterns of autistic learning in adulthood? In talking to parents of older “children”, I’m struck by how many of them insist that the capacity for learning continues well beyond the teenage years – that startling progress can be made into the twenties, thirties and beyond. A legal right to educational support up to the age of 25, as advocated by Ambitious about Autism, would be a huge advance in autistic well being.
I know, asking for more years of educational services for autistic students in an era of slashed budgets and economic crisis seems like a counter-logical fantasy. But I think we need to take up Moore’s point and think about how to re-model autism education based not on “neuotypical development” but on that of autistic development. Of course it will not be easier to say good-bye to the yellow school bus when a child is 25, but why not give autistic individuals who have educational, social and other delays more time to learn all they can? More time is needed for the transition to adulthood and independence.
I am not saying that such a change might have made a difference for Elizabeth and George Hodgins. But I do know that families with older autistic child feel themselves staring at an abyss when they think of their child turning 21. We have learned so much more about autism and the different developments, abilities and needs of autistic individuals in this past decade: Let us try to use this knowledge to provide the best outcomes and the best lives for individuals with developmental disabilities at every age.
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