Life after high school for students with disabilities

Ernst VanBergeijk documents the pathways to a US higher education for students with disabilities.

For higher functioning students on the autism spectrum and other types of disabilities, there are three different paths to follow after high school. These three paths or options are: vocational training, supported academic programmes and comprehensive transition programmes. Which path a student should follow depends upon their strengths, aptitudes and interests, much like neurotypical students at this stage of life.

Vocational training can begin in high school and continue in the postsecondary environment. Frequently, the training is accessed through state offices of vocational and rehabilitative services. These agencies operate under a variety of names and acronyms depending upon the state in which the student resides. The vocational training is skills based training and does not result in a degree. Many of the traditional trades are represented at vocational training centres such as plumbing, carpentry and automotive repair. Other popular vocational pursuits include cosmetology, culinary arts, and clerical fields. However, students at vocational training centres can also pursue careers in fields that do not readily come to mind. These include computer programming and networking certificates; a certificate as a personal fitness trainer; and a certificate as a veterinarian technician. These certificates are ideal for higher functioning students on the autism spectrum who do not see the value of a liberal arts education and are solely interested in their personal interests and pursuits.

Supported academic programmes are for students with ASDs or other disabilities who are ‘otherwise qualified’ to attend college. This means these students possess the intellectual ability to withstand the rigors of an academic degree programme. These students are able to read and write at a college level. They have graduated from high school with a diploma and understand that the special education system that supported them in their formative years of education does not exist in postsecondary education. However, these students are able to not only articulate what their disabilities are, but they are also able to articulate what types of reasonable accommodations they might need in order to not be denied the rights and privileges they are entitled to while attending college. In the United States, the students are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which ensures that students are not denied these rights and privileges solely because of their disabilities. Offices of disabled student services ensure that the colleges are in compliance with the ADA and that the students’ reasonable accommodations are met on campus and in the classrooms. These reasonable accommodations are made by either providing services to the student directly (e.g. tutoring, mentoring, note taking, recorded lectures or books) or the college environment is changed as a part of the accommodation process (for example, the student is able to take an exam in an alternative testing site that is distraction free, or is given extended time on the test, accessible ramping is installed etc.). Higher functioning students on the spectrum or any other kind of disability must be able to provide documentation regarding their disabilities and need for accommodations. They must also self identify and be able to self advocate. This is in stark contrast to their typical role in the special education system where parents are the primary driving force.

However, college is more than simply taking classes, writing papers, and taking exams. In fact, many higher functioning students on the autism spectrum are quite comfortable with the structure of the coursework. Where students on the spectrum have the most difficulty is navigating the social and unstructured aspects of college life. They need an interpreter of the social world, much like a person with a hearing loss needs an interpreter for the hearing world. Impairments in executive functioning also make it difficult for these students to structure their free time and organise the complex assignments required of college students. They also have difficulty with independent living skills such as personal hygiene, organising their rooms, laundry and managing personal finances. Without structure and support in these areas, the results can be disastrous. The impairments in these areas are not related to their intellectual ability, but can definitely thwart their success at college.

The third option for higher functioning students with ASDs and other neurologically based learning disabilities is a hybrid of the two previous options. Comprehensive Transition Programmes (CTPs) combine aspects of vocational training and supported academic programmes. CTPs also address the social skills and independent living skills deficits not addressed by supported academic programmes. The curricula in CTPs can include courses in health, personal financial management, travel training and apartment/household management. 

Goals of CTPs are either to transition students into the world of work and independent living, or to transition students into a degree bearing programme full time. The admissions process for the CTP may be separate from the college itself. Students in approved CTPs can enrol without having a high school diploma.

Recent changes to the Higher Education Act in the USA now make it possible for students with intellectual disabilities who are enrolled in approved CTP to receive federal grants and student work study monies.  See - - for more information concerning approved CTPs and the definition of an intellectual disability.

Written by Ernst VanBergeijk, PhD, M.S.W. (2011)
Associate Dean & Executive Director
New York Institute of Technology
Vocational Independence Program