Family-tested solutions
for Special Needs

Toddler and mother playing together

Family-tested solutions
for Special Needs

Toddler and mother playing together

Transition Planning: Are You Asking the Right Question?


I never met a parent who was calm about transition planning. Trudging along with your teenager into an unknown territory feels scary. Ready or not, there are certain “bridges” between child and adult systems (education, health, insurance, financial, legal) that a young adult must cross within a definite time period. Rights to educational services during high school become opportunities to get services after high school—if you know where to find them and how to qualify. Yikes.


Paper Bridges to Nowhere

Starting at age 14 (and no later than 16) a student’s IEP must include a transition plan that describes his or her intended path after high school. Unfortunately, many of these plans are paper bridges to nowhere, because they don’t incorporate the “Big Picture” of everyday life after high school ends. To get useful answers, you need effective questions. Well-meaning people ask a child or youth, “What do you want to BE when you grow up?” A more effective question for a teen in transition might be, “How do I picture my everyday life when I’m an adult?”

At Get There Project, we teach families to visualize the “Big Picture.” It’s big, but it’s ordinary, too. This is a picture of life on an average day in a good week. What’s the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning? What happens next? Where do you go, and how do you get there? Who are the other people in this picture? What’s in your wallet (and how does it get there)?

A Whole-Family Exercise

The Big Picture is more than a vision of the young adult’s everyday life. It involves the whole family. Some parents are careful to plan financially for the future of a young person with special needs, but they may not consider their own needs for a good quality of life.

For example, do you want your child residing in your house at age 25 (or 35 or 45)? If yes, begin picturing the arrangements each person in the house would need to feel comfortable and satisfied at the end of a good day. If the answer is no, start picturing what an alternative situation might look like. Don’t forget to think about how this transition might affect your own work, spare time, or relationships.

Mom Needs a Life, Too

Frankly, by the time David reached transition age, I had logged a dozen years as a stay-at-home caregiver to children with special needs. I am unashamed to say that “Mom gets a life of her own” was part of the Big Picture for our family. A parent or guardian’s role at the starting gate of transition planning is to help bring The Big Picture of a young adult’s life into focus. That focus grows sharper when everyone who is directly affected by that picture is given a voice—and permission to dream.

Up Next: Our Success Plan

Find out how we planned for our son David’s independent future in Part Two: The Big Picture of Independent Living. In Part 3: The Practice Apartment, discover how our transition plan became reality. Part 4: Transition Resources features suggestions from our national team of Get There Project Certified Facilitators and Coaches.

Wendy Lowe Besmann

Wendy Besmann, Founder and Content Director of Get There Project, is the mother of a son with autism and bipolar disorder. She is the author of Family Road Map: A Step-By-Step Guide to Navigating Health, Education, and Insurance Systems for Families with Special Needs, Team Up for Your Child: A Step-By-Step Guide to Working Smarter with Doctors, Schools, Insurers and Agencies, and (with Kimberly Douglass, PhD) Young Adult Road Map: A Step-By-Step Guide to Wellness, Independent Living, and Transition Services for People in Their Teens and Twenties. She founded Get There Project’s primary partner Team Up for Families, an advocacy and training organization for families living with behavioral, developmental, and other special health needs.

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