This article is meant to address the tricky area of Transition for students with disabilities. Since April is Autism Awareness Month, attorney Mary Kathryn McKinley has written this piece with tips and ideas to help assure that transition services are built into the plan. Postsecondary outcomes are sometimes minimized in the quest to graduate. But that might be a mistake. Instead, McKinley suggests careful preplanning. Such preplanning can make the difference for these students and ensure that they receive crucial services by extending the window of eligibility.
Mary Kathryn McKinley, Esq.
Bradley Vauter & Associates, P.C.
The wave of students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) is hitting the transition shore- preparing for the challenges of adult life as they navigate the significant challenges that stand between them and careers, further education, independence, and personal fulfillment. Their needs are many and the options available to them, at this crucial juncture, while increasing, remain limited.
Students with ASD are, in general, full of potential. According to the CDC, almost half (46{ea75ddc5eed2fbdedbe619ddaf164d09aafea45a4dcf77bed638b47cccf30fbf}) of children identified with ASD had average or above average intellectual ability (IQ greater than 85).[1]
But in order to be successful adults, most of these students need significant transition supports and services. Without transition supports and services, they will likely never have the opportunity to realize their full potential and contribute their many gifts to society.
The challenge of supporting this population of students as they transition to adulthood is daunting. At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, in Michigan, 831 students with ASDs exited high school.[2] Nationally, the numbers of students with ASDs are rising at an alarming rate. For students born in 1996, 1 in 125 has an ASD; for children born in 1998, 1 in 110 have ASDs, and for children born in 2002, 1 in 68 has an ASD.[3] This means that the number of students with ASDs exiting high school in 2020 will be double what they are now, and likely continue similar increases in the future.
What exactly is “Transition?”
“Transition” can mean many things in many contexts in special education. It can mean the challenges of moving from one class to another, or from one classroom to another, or from one building to another. But most frequently, and here, the word refers to Transition services, a crucial component of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for every student with disabilities.
School districts are charged under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) not only with providing a free, appropriate public high school education to students with defined special needs, but they are also responsible for preparing students with disabilities for life after high school. [4]
Special education students are entitled under IDEA to a robust array of specific, relevant, and meaningful transition services as part of their IEPs. “Transition” is defined as a “coordinated set of activities for a child with a disability” that is “results oriented” and aimed at “facilitating the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment), continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation… based on the individual child’s needs, taking into account the child’s strengths, preferences, and interests…” [5]
By age 16, specific transition goals, individualized to the student’s interests and strengths, are required to be included in every IEP.[6] By the time that a student exits special education, the transition process should be largely completed, because the options available through IDEA terminate once a student’s eligibility for special education services ceases.
But when does that eligibility cease? This decision is left to the states, which can provide more eligibility than that mandated by IDEA, but not less. Michigan Administrative Rules for Special Education (MARSE) set forth Michigan’s special education rules.
Michigan provides special education services to qualified individuals up to age 26, unless the student has “graduated from high school.” [7]   New proposed rules would change the wording significantly, to cut off special education services for students who have “completed the requirements for a regular high school diploma.” [8]
What this means in practice is that no longer will school districts be allowed to provide additional services, such as transition services, after sufficient credits towards a diploma have been earned, by putting the actual graduation formalities on hold. If the rule changes, as soon as sufficient credits are earned, eligibility for special education services ceases.
Diploma vs. Certificate
The students with ASDs (as well as students with other disabilities) who leave high school in Michigan fall roughly (but not exclusively) in to two groups: those who receive a regular diploma and those who receive a Certificate of Completion. Only those students who earn a regular diploma are cut off from additional services before age 26.
In order to earn a regular diploma, students in Michigan must complete all of the requirements of the Michigan Merit Curriculum (MMC), or complete a modified version of this (a “Personal Curriculum”).[9] The MMC is a rigorous regimen of coursework that includes Algebra II, Chemistry or Physics, English, Social Studies, Civics and other requirements.[10]
Students who complete other, less structured, less rigorous coursework are generally awarded a Certificate of Completion and are exempt from the ambitious MMC curriculum. They can fashion a high school curriculum that meets their individual preferences.
How and when do students make the election to aim for a diploma or a Certificate? It varies from student to student and from school to school. Essentially all students are on the diploma track until they are taken off of it. And at some point, often as early as middle school, some students with ASDs in particular are advised that the “diploma track” would be too stressful and thus they are advised to lower their expectations.   Part of this “stress” is occasioned by the fact that Michigan is a state that exclusively promotes “inclusion” as the gold standard in education.
Inclusion is the practice of teaching all students together, regardless of their learning challenges. Thus a student who is not neuro-typical, who has focus and attention difficulties, processing delays, sensory challenges and the like is expected to learn at essentially the same rate and in essentially the same manner as his or her nondisabled peers. That is another important discussion, best left to another day.
Students who choose a Certificate path have time available in high school for transition services, such as vocational training, placements, and practical courses aimed at helping them live independently. After completing high school and receiving their Certificate, these students remain eligible to receive additional services, usually through their intermediate school district, until they are 26 years old.
The law is not so thoughtful towards students with disabilities, especially students with ASDs, who earn a diploma. These students generally have the same types of challenges as their counterparts who elect to pursue a Certificate, and the same multifaceted transition needs. But the requirements of the MMC leave little time in high school for anything except academics, and when students do complete these MMC requirements, they lose eligibility for further, crucial transition services. They are forced out of the protections of IDEA at age 18 or so and receive roughly 8 fewer years of post high school transition services than do their counterparts who elect to work towards a Certificate.
At the moment when a diploma is earned, students with disabilities often find themselves not rejoicing, but panicking, because now the most valuable doors to the future for them – through transition services – have, ironically, closed.
Is there any way around this?
There is, unfortunately, no perfect solution. But many students who work towards a diploma are making the election to prolong high school beyond the typical four years. They are holding back that last credit needed for graduation until a fifth and/or sixth year of services, which can now be primarily transition based, are completed.
This can be the time for vocational training and placements, for courses teaching independent living skills, perhaps for postsecondary coursework with supports necessary for success, to prepare the student for further education. Many if not all of these services can be provided outside of the high school building, depending on the school district.
A very deliberate and comprehensive IEP, with the best possible transition goals, must be in place in order for this strategy to succeed. Planning begins, optimally, when the student enters high school or before. It begins with a clear focus on the desired outcomes: the student’s vision for adulthood, for the options that must be available, all based on real interests and strengths. Once this clear picture is in mind, the specific transition services and supports that are needed to achieve these goals will also become clear.
Always keep in mind that robust transition goals that focus on independent living, the ability of the student to participate in rewarding employment, and perhaps continued education, are required under IDEA. But too frequently IEPs contain perfunctory, boilerplate transition goals masquerading as legitimate goals. Vigilance, vision, and a careful plan, well thought out and revised as needed, will ensure strong goals. The resulting IEP will be a powerful argument for the school to agree that additional time is needed for those goals to be reached.
Individualized, meaningful, challenging, well-designed transition goals, necessarily and by definition, take time for the student to master. With careful planning and attention to detail, and perhaps a few extra high school years, students with ASDs who elect to pursue a diploma won’t find the door shut on their ambitions when they graduate.
[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Data as of Feb. 2015 (
[2] Michigan Department of Education data
[3] Id.
[4] 20 U.S.C § 1400 (d) (1) (a)
[5] 20 U.S.C. § 1401(34)); 34 CFR § 300.43
[6] 34 CFR § 300.320(b), (c); 20 U.S.C. §1414 (d)(1)(A)(i)(VIII)]
[7] MARSE, R 340.1702
[9]  MCL §380.1278b
[10] MCL §380.1278a