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6 Ways to Foster Independence in Young Adults with Special Needs

Tips for parents and guardians on how to help their student transition to post-secondary college life.

Transitioning from high school to post-secondary life is an exciting time. Helping your student adopt good habits before they go off to school can help ease the transition and set them up for greater success.

Here are six ways you can help your student with special needs as they get ready for this life-changing event.

1. Provide opportunities to sleep away from home.

Students who struggle adjusting to post-secondary programs often haven't slept away from their parents’ or relatives' home. Encouraging sleepovers at friends’ houses can ease that difficulty. Sleep-away camps, boarding schools, and summer travel programs can also build self-confidence.

2. Establish good sleep habits.

Good sleep habits improve learning. Make sure your student has a regular time that they go to sleep, that they get 8–10 hours of sleep a night, and that they can get themselves up in the morning. Let take responsibility for setting their own alarm clocks or phone alarms.

Post-secondary programs don't necessarily have a fixed schedule. Your student might have classes or internships at different times. No one will be there to make sure they're out of bed and ready for class or work.

3. Limit screen time.

Being able to self-regulate the use of smart phones, iPads, and laptops is important. Some programs won't allow their students to have a cell phone on during class or internship hours. This can lead to an unnecessary power struggle between a professor or internship supervisor and the student, which could affect the student's evaluation.

Limiting the use of electronics at night will improve the student’s sleep quality. They should stop using their screens at least one hour before bedtime.

4. Have them do their own laundry.

A stumbling block for even neurotypical college students is doing laundry. Many parents show their young adults how to do laundry, but it's not the same as having the student be responsible for their own laundry.

Doing laundry each week establishes a habit that they're comfortable with, which makes transitioning to doing laundry away from home easier.

5. Have them be responsible for medication.

Most post-secondary programs don't have medical staff to administer medications. In fact, some states have laws prohibiting this practice.

Teaching your student how to set up a pill box, set reminders, and refill medications will go a long way to helping them ease into post-secondary life. Teaching them to self-advocate with medical and mental health providers will also help ease the transition. 

College-based medical providers are bound by privacy laws that prevent them from speaking to parents about these issues regarding students over the age of 18.

6. Practice traveling using mass transit.

Many college students do not, or cannot, have a car on campus. Many students with disabilities don't drive and they have to rely on public transportation.

If your student is going to school in an urban environment, they'll need to learn how to use buses, trains, and ferries. Previewing these modes of transportation with your student can help decrease anxiety.

Your student needs to know how to get to places using multiple modes of transportation. They should practice conducting transfers, purchasing tickets from cashiers and vending machines, and reading schedules and route maps in paper and online.

In addition to "fixed route" training—showing them how to go from point A to point B— it's equally important to teach them what to do when mass transit has a problem. Learning to manage contingencies is critical because it's likely something will go wrong with public transportation at some point.

Finally, if the public system fails, downloading ride sharing applications such as Uber™ and Lyft™ and having them practice using these services will ease their minds as well as yours.

Learn More About Our Program

The Threshold Program is a college-based post-secondary transition program located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The program helps young adults with diverse learning needs transition into the world of work and independent living.