As Columbia resident Deborah Clutts prepares for her 17-year-old son's transition into adulthood, she said she is encountering challenges she didn't face when her older daughter graduated from high school.
"With the typical student getting ready to graduate, although the parents may have some degree of involvement, there is a natural evolution to independence," she said. "With a student with a disability, there is a planning process that needs to take place to assist that student to whatever degree they need in transitioning into adulthood."
Clutts's son, Matthew, was diagnosed with autism at age 3 and will graduate from Kennedy Krieger High School next year.
"The path isn't as clear," she said.
That's why it's so important to start planning early, said Patrick Boxall, vice president of the Howard County Autism Society, which is co-hosting its third annual symposium on the transition to adulthood this Saturday.
Under Maryland law, individuals with disabilities are eligible for publicly-funded special education and certain wrap-around services until they graduate high school or reach age 21. Then, Boxall said, their support system changes.
"That's difficult for many families to get their heads around," he said. Boxall has two sons who both attend Glenelg High School and have autism.
"Working with a student with a disability, living with these students brings its own challenges that make it very difficult as a practical matter to focus on the future," he said.
This year's symposium, which is co-hosted by the Howard County government and school system, is titled "Stop Waiting and Start Planning," and aims to get parents and caretakers to engage with transition planning as soon as possible. It is open to all youth with developmental disabilities and their guardians, not only for those affected by autism.
Based on the school system's enrollment numbers, Boxall estimates that approximately 375 special education students leave high school in the county each year.
"I'm optimistic that we're going to get a real cross-section of the county," he said.
Guardians at the symposium will hear from guest speakers about the various areas in which their children may need support.
"Parents are interested in housing, transportation, recreation and employment," said Clutts, who has volunteered with the Howard County Autism Society for 14 years and is on its transition committee. "Employment is a big source of concern."
Unlike the average young adult, people with disabilities may need coaching to learn the tasks required of them at a job, she said, and they will likely need help finding a job in the first place.
"Even in finding a volunteer position, it took some effort on my part to call and find something for Matt," Clutts said. Her son volunteered at a Howard County farm last summer.
"Whereas, a typical high school student might walk into guidance counselor's office and find volunteer opportunities," she said. "They're going to be independent and seek that out."
Steve Elville of the Columbia-based law firm Elville and Associates, which does work in special education planning and elder law, will speak to caregivers about whether they should apply for guardianship after their children become adults.
"Parents are often told that they need to have guardianship by well-meaning people, but they don't necessarily need to," Elville said. "For high-functioning children, there is no need for it because they can sign powers of attorney and advanced medical directives."
New at the symposium this year is a track for youth with disabilities, to be directed by Accessible Resources for Independence Inc., a business that helps people with disabilities to maximize their independence.
"We got into this coming from that viewpoint of getting to these youth before they've exited to help them think about building skills and a plan," said the business' executive director, Katie Collins-Ihrke. "This transitional age is very important because after they're done with the school system, they may or may not have support in the adult world."
Student participants will learn independent living skills, from maintaining healthy relationships and preparing meals to voting and advocating for themselves.
"In your childhood, your youth, your parents do a lot of talking for you," Collins-Ihrke said. "When you're an adult, you're expected to speak for yourself, and expressing yourself effectively is key."
The "Stop Waiting and Start Planning" symposium will be held Saturday, March 19 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Cedar Lane School in Fulton. Registration costs $35 per caregiver and is free for transitioning youth ages 16-26. To learn more or to register for the event, go to howard-autism.org/transition-symposium.