Sowing the seeds of self-determination

February 25, 2013
Chelsea Budde

There's this word in the Special Education universe that's often misunderstood until, as a parent, you and your child are in the thick of it: Transition.  It's not the lowercase transition, which occurs so many times in the life of a student with special needs.  There's the transition from an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) that preschoolers have from birth to age 3, if they qualify, to the Individualized Education Program (IEP) that the local school district drafts.  Then the transition from Early Childhood classes to Kindergarten.  Then from elementary school to middle school.

And somewhere along that middle school time in the state of Wisconsin, or in high school according to federal law, families start to hear about this Transition.  Transition is the period of time and series of events required to prepare students with special education needs for life after secondary education.  While students with IEPs may graduate with their peers, they may also opt to stay in the public school system, receiving related services until they're 21 years old.  This Transition planning is multi-faceted and critically important.  Perhaps most importantly, it's a time when students are required to engage actively in the process and select desired outcomes.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has a series of four publications intended to assist Transition teams with various aspects of the process.  There is one that speaks to the steps families and schools can take when students are yet in elementary school: Opening Doors to Self-Determination Skills.  Here's the list for students (found on p. 7 of the booklet):

  • Know your strengths (what you are good at).
  • Know your areas of need (where you need help).
  • Know your interests (what you like).
  • Know what kind of support you need to be successful.
  • Learn how to make choices.
  • Be a part of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, at first by introducing IEP members and describing yourself (interests, likes, dislikes).
  • Share a list of accommodations you need with general education teachers.
  • Participate in clubs, sports, and other activities kids your age are in.
  • Begin to understand your own disability and what it means to your learning.
  • Choose a time and place to study and do homework at home each day.
  • Help out with family chores (making dinner, shopping, cleaning your room).
  • Volunteer and help out in your local community.
  • Enjoy who you are! Learn about yourself. You are more than your disability.

How can students with autism be self-aware if we don't start having these conversations with them early?  The better they are at being familiar with themselves, the better they will be able to determine their own needs.  Knowing their strengths and their supports is part of self-determination.  And being able to share those things with peers, teachers, and eventually employers, will make that Transition more smooth.

So as a parent and professional, I encourage you as parents and teachers to be Transition-minded with your students when they are in second grade.  And by the time your student with autism is in middle school, they will be far more likely to participate meaningfully in this mandated process.

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