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 confusion
The most significant obstacle for children with special needs as they ‘age’ from pediatric care programs designed to help them effectively use public education resources is that their need for care is not diminishing, but the resources available to attention yes 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 law only provides resources for people up to age 20 or 21 (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 ‘lesser things’ on your own. If you are not “legitimately” disabled in quotes, if you have, for example, “mere” ADHD or a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome, it is 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 children does not seem like such a large number, consider that only 3.3 million children graduated from high school in 2014, and the dropout rate was only 7% overall, which means that we are looking at a little over 3.5 million children turning 18 in total. That half a million, then, represents about 1 in 7 children. That’s a large proportion of our population that we are essentially dropping the ball as they age outside of 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 is largely a matter 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 get studies on other forms of individuals with special needs.
One thing is for sure: Dealing with the half a million new adults with special needs entering our population each year is a challenge that we will all have to face, and soon. The option to ignore the problem simply does not reasonably exist.