Thinking About Transitions

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

Transitions occur throughout our lives in many different ways. Moving to a new home, changing jobs, or starting a new school are all major transitions. Educational transitions are particularly challenging for children with autism and other developmental disabilities due to problems with language, difficulty transferring skills to new situations, and the need for specialized instruction and materials.

Transitions are also stressful for parents of children with special needs. They must help their children navigate a series of transitions – first into an early intervention program, then into preschool, elementary school, middle school, high school, and finally, into adulthood. Three aspects of service delivery change across these transitions: location, focus, and regulations.

  • Location: When a child is very young, he or she usually receives services at home. The child and family are the sole recipients of the therapist’s attention and treatment. Parents have opportunities to observe, participate, and have daily personal interaction with the therapists. When the child turns 3, most services are provided outside of the home, with other children, and interaction with therapists is no longer daily or at home. As the child grows older, it becomes more and more difficult for parents to maintain the level of involvement they had when their child was very young.

  • Focus: When children are very young, services are focused on the family. Therapists develop an Individualized Family Support Plan (IFSP) to address the needs of the family. Goals of the IFSP can include helping parents manage problem behavior and obtain medical or health benefits. When the child enters the educational system, an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) is created that focuses only on the educational needs of the child, such as specific language, social, and motor skills. An Individualized Support Plan (ISP) is written for adults with special needs to address quality of life, community membership, relationships, and independence.

  • Regulations: Different federal and state laws govern services at different points in the child’s life. Numerous laws "entitle" a child to appropriate services. As a result, school systems and insurance companies must pay for services. When individuals with special needs reach adulthood, services are based upon funding, primarily from the state. Sometimes funding is not available to meet all of the needs of every person.

Transition Planning

What can parents do to prepare for transitions? First, transition planning should always be part of the child’s IEP to ensure continuation of services and specify the responsibilities of the therapists, family, and school system. For very young children, an IEP should be developed at least three months prior to the child’s third birthday. For adolescents, planning for transition to adulthood can begin as early as age 14.

Second, parents should learn about available future settings and options for their child. Most agencies and service programs welcome inquiries from parents and encourage visits and tours.

Third, parents should plan for stability from a legal and financial perspective. This includes setting up trusts and wills, ensuring government benefits such as Social Security and Medicaid, and planning for guardianship.

A recent study by Emily Forest and her colleagues identified a number of elements critical to making a successful transition for a child:

  • At least 12 months prior to transition:

    • identify new placement options

    • identify any related services that will be needed

    • create a transition timeline

  • Between 6 and 12 months:

    • visit new placement options

    • select specific placement

    • determine and teach the child skills to prepare for the new placement

  • Within 6 months:

    • current therapists visit new setting

    • receiving therapists visit current program

    • child visits new site

    • new curriculum and instructional procedures are developed

Every transition includes unexpected challenges. Sometimes there are disagreements between parents and school systems, and sometimes appropriate placements cannot be found. Educational advocates and parent support groups can help to resolve conflicts, and parents should not hesitate to ask for assistance.

By Alan E. Harchik, Ph.D., 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 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