Turning 22 and Autism

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

Turning 22 is a major milestone for students with autism or intellectual disabilities. This is the age when they transition from children’s services provided by the school system into adult services provided by the state. During this time, the focus shifts from academic and instructional activities to developing functional, vocational, and social skills.

This transition is generally a positive experience because adult programs and services are designed to help these individuals increase their independence, foster meaningful relationships, and become active members of their communities. But it can seem overwhelming for families who do not understand the process.

Although 18 is technically considered the age when young people become adults, students with special needs can continue to receive educational services through their school districts until they turn 22. After a student reaches his or her 22nd birthday, however, this entitlement ends.

Because the services an individual with special needs receives as an adult are not guaranteed, it is important to understand the federal and state laws that govern the responsible agencies.

Chapter 688 is a federal law that creates a bridge between educational and adult services, providing necessary supports to students making this transition.

A student already receiving services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may be automatically eligible for continued adult services when he or she turns 22. A student who does not already have an IEP must be referred for adult services. This referral is initiated by the school district that has been serving the student. According to Chapter 688, the referral should be made at least two years prior to the student’s 22nd birthday, although the standard practice is to do so when the student is 16.

The state agency typically responsible for post-transition services for individuals with intellectual disabilities or autism is the Department of Developmental Services (DDS).

Once the referral is made, the individual or his or her guardian is responsible for providing DDS with the necessary information to determine eligibility. This information includes, but is not limited to: psychological testing results; developmental evaluations; progress reports; early intervention assessments; and counseling/therapy reports. After DDS has received this information and all eligibility assessments have been completed, the Eligibility Team reviews the student’s file and decides whether or not he or she is eligible to receive services through their agency.

If the student is determined to be eligible, then DDS organizes an Individual Transition Plan (ITP) meeting during which the individual, his or her family, and representatives from the school district and DDS discuss and outline the types of services he or she will need after the transition to adulthood.

There are many specialized services available to individuals with special needs transitioning into adulthood. A Service Coordinator will most likely be assigned to facilitate and monitor these services, which might include residential placement, day and community supports, employment, and family support. The Service Coordinator works to ensure a successful transition, and to monitor the provision of services throughout the individual’s adult life.

If, after reviewing the student’s file, the Eligibility Team determines that the student is not eligible for services through DDS, then the individual or his or her guardian may either file an appeal through the Bureau of Transitional Planning (BTP), or make a request for services through an alternative human service agency.

Starting the transition process early makes it more likely that it will be a successful experience. Effective planning can take the stress out of the transition, not only for the individual, but also for his or her family and service providers. With ample time and adequate resources, everyone can make informed decisions and prepare for and adjust to the many changes that will occur throughout the transition process.

Working together, families, school districts, and state agencies can ensure that a student’s 22nd birthday will mark the beginning of a meaningful and happy adult life.

By Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit