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Building Blocks to Independent Living for Young Adults with Special Needs

Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo, Vice President of Admissions and Marketing Chapel Haven

Building Blocks to Independent Living for Young Adults with Special Needs

Young adults with development and social disabilities who graduate from high school are often not ready to face the challenges of college, work and independent living.

  • They may not have received effective or sufficient social skills instruction and coaching to ensure that they will be able to get along and communicate effectively with other people in future jobs, college or an adult residential setting.
  • They may not have received substantial transition services in their high schools, leaving them unprepared to manage the practical responsibilities of adulthood, such as managing one's own household, personal finances, or health care.
  • They may have poor executive functioning skills, making it hard for them to organize, plan and manage their lives independently.
  • They may feel anxious or fearful, or lack confidence in their ability to cope on their own.
  • They may have limited awareness of their own challenges, strengths, and preferences, making it hard to select suitable, realistic options for post-secondary education and employment. Where can they go, and what can they do? How can they take the next step forward with their lives? Where can they learn the skills they need, taking a giant step toward independence, and yet receiving carefully calibrated levels of instruction and support?
This column looks at the some of the fundamental support services that can help adults with a variety of disabilities transition into successful independent lives.

Fostering Social Communicative Competency
An important area that is sometimes overlooked in the transition process is addressing social skills for these young adults. Particularly for adults on the autism spectrum, a major stumbling block can be underdeveloped social skills, including an inability to recognize nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures, or to navigate the social norms of behavior and conversation.

Good instruction will help young adults develop confidence in their communication skills, helping them practice how to interpret facial expressions and gestures, engage in reciprocal conversations, problem solve and appreciate another person's point of view. Students should have the chance to practice making a social plan with a peer, do some role playing using different social scenarios, and develop better self awareness. With the help of skilled practitioners, young adults can benefit tremendously from coaching in speech clarity, speed, phrasing, correct use of formal and informal language, figurative language, and irony. Then, with the help of staff, young adults benefit when they the chance to practice these skills in natural, authentic settings, for example, learning how to speak up in a classroom, how to order in a restaurant, how to make a social plan with a roommate, and most importantly, how to self-advocate. Along the way, their confidence grows.

Independent Living Skills are essential to deal with adult day-to-day demands and responsibilities. Young adults need sequenced instruction in "survival" skills, e.g.: use of the telephone, financial management, grooming, preparing nutritionally appropriate meals, and traveling independently.

A residential setting away from home but with plenty of caring and qualified professionals can help adults learn to get along with others while learning, through rote instruction, how to manage their hygiene, clothing, diet and vocational and leisure pursuits. These skills are difficult for the transitioning adult to build while still under the watchful care of parents or guardians. A transitional setting that allows these adults to take small risks and make mistakes is the optimal way to begin building survival skills.

A related skill that also can be overlooked relates to time management. Young adults with special needs have often had significant help from adults in their lives in filling downtime with sports, hobbies, recreational and leisure pursuits. Learning how to manage blocks of time requires planning and communication. Learning how to initiate and carry out satisfying downtime activities with other peers is a good fundamental skill for building happy and satisfied lives out in the community. Students who have had a chance to practice managing their leisure time have more of a chance to learn skills such as compromising, sharing and getting along with others.

Other core supports include teaching adults home safety - learning how to identify an emergency situation, when to call 911, how to use electrical appliances safely, how to use the telephone in an emergency, and understanding the dangers of inviting strangers into the home.

Financial management skills include managing a bank account, learning to budget for the week, grocery shopping and budgeting for weekend recreation activities.

Young adults need to learn how to manage their own health care. This includes understanding common illnesses, when to take over-the-counter medications, how to become more independent with doctors' appointments and hygiene, and learning the fundamentals of a healthy diet. Cooking and clothing management will help young adults practice and develop the rote routines they will need to be able to move out into a community and manage an apartment with some independence. Learning to go to the Laundromat and building a repertoire of simple but healthy recipes helps young adults manage typical concerns like weight gain and obesity.

Another key area is sex education. Developing awareness about the dangers of unprotected sex and discussing methods of birth control can help adults feel more confident as they explore dating and relationships.

Preparing for vocation and college
Adults with disabilities also need to develop plans for employment, and in many cases, college. Support services in this area might include helping a young adult develop a better sense of the types of employment settings they might prefer, beginning to inventory their own strengths and weaknesses, practicing job interviews and developing a vocational portfolio.

An important focus will be on learning the soft skills necessary to become a professional and reliable employee. For many adults on the spectrum, understanding the unspoken rules of a workplace - how to dress, how to fill time when the assigned task ends - can be challenging and must be taught implicitly.

The driving purpose and foundation of a successful transition is integration into the community. Young adults who have learned concrete life skills, have had practice at organizing, planning and managing their day, and have been taught these skills through the lens of social competence, will enjoy fulfilling and productive lives of independence.

Founded in 1972, Chapel Haven teaches adults with cognitive disabilities and social disabilities, including Asperger Syndrome, to live independent and productive lives. For more information, call the Admissions Office at (203) 397-1714, ext 148. Read more at

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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