When children with special needs grow up

According to a study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, more than half a million children with special needs turn 18 each year. However, turning 18 does not mean that the conditions that gave these children the “special needs” label have suddenly disappeared; indeed, most of these new adults will require as much or more ongoing intervention to navigate an increasingly complex world.

lost in the deck

The most significant barrier for children with special needs as they outgrow pediatric care programs designed to help them effectively use public education resources is that their need for care does not diminish, but the resources available to attention they do. Most of the funding that supports children with special needs comes from a single law: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. That Act only provides resources for people up to 20 or 21 years of age (depending on the state law that distributes the funds).

Not just extreme cases

This is compounded by the fact that as a culture, Americans are firmly attached to the notion of personal responsibility. Once you are an adult, you are expected to be able to deal with the “minor things” on your own. If you’re not quote-unquote “legitimately” disabled, if you have, say, “simple” ADHD or a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder like Asperger’s syndrome, then it’s assumed that you no longer need help. As any parent of a child with special needs can tell you, that’s a ridiculous assumption.

More than you think

If half a million kids doesn’t sound like that big of a number, consider that only 3.3 million kids graduated from high school in 2014, and the dropout rate was just 7% overall, which means we’re looking at a just over 3.5 million children turning 18 in total. That half a million, then, represents about 1 in 7 children. That is a large proportion of our population that we are essentially dropping the ball on as they age away from the one program that has made their care possible for the last 12 years of their lives.

What comes next?

Unfortunately, the next step is not well defined. For some who are no longer children with special needs, it largely consists of continuing to live with their parents and struggling to find a job or a form of continuing education that suits their needs. According to a study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, two years after graduating from high school, 50% of newly diagnosed adults with an autism spectrum disorder had not yet successfully obtained any paid work experience or secondary education. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find studies on other forms of people with special needs.

One thing is for sure: dealing with the half million new adults with special needs entering our population each year is a challenge we will all have to face, and soon. The option to ignore the problem is simply not reasonably there.

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