Seeing a future for kids with special needs

When parenting children with special needs, the things that keep parents up at night are endless. One of those major milestones that many parents have in common is the question of life after high school. While most high schools do provide a transition program that allows the child to maintain attendance until the day after their 21st birthday, there are some parents who want more for their child.

As we all know the term special needs is a large umbrella that covers many physical, cognitive, emotional and developmental delays or challenges. With this, there are many children who have the opportunity to explore colleges and universities after high school depending on their abilities and limitations.

Let’s talk college

As the conversation surrounding college in the special needs community begins to become increasingly popular, many of these institutions of higher learning have created programs tailored towards high school graduates. These are programs that are for students who desire a more immersive college experience post-high school.

Elmhurst College provides a four-year program called Elmhurst Learning and Success Academy (ELSA) Program. ELSA is a four-year post-secondary certificate program for ages 18-28 with different differing abilities. The college prides itself on being part of select group of colleges and universities that provide an inclusive environment for students with various disabilities, providing them the opportunities to participate in campus life just like any other college student.

More importantly, programs like this provide children and families with disabilities opportunities that will impact their social-emotional learning needs as well.

How do I know if my child qualifies?

It’s helpful to seek out these kinds of programs and ask questions.

Elmhurst College recommends incoming program participants have an average of a third-grade level education and have the developmental aptitude to make decisions for themselves, along with having independent mobility because the college does not provide aids or nurses to fulfill more severe needs.

Residential living facilities

Depending on the desires of the young adult and the needs of the family, residential living facilities may be an option for some. These facilities provide 24-hour care for residents, while providing the residents with the independence of living alone and a community of individuals that fosters an active social life.

Financing life beyond high school

Along with thinking about our children’s quality of life post-high school, parents are often dreading the elephant in the room, finances.

“The best advice we can give is that it’s never too soon to start planning. Even with children whose abilities are improving through therapies and time, it’s important to plan for what we know today,” says Sara Shalvey, special needs mom and financial representative from Northwestern Mutual. “We encourage our clients to take a holistic approach to the planning process. Not only are we making sure our children with special needs are taken care of, but we are also ensuring that the parents are able to retire, and plan for other goals.”

When planning for college or residential living facilities, the financial component can be worrisome. These programs do not offer financial aid in the form of subsidized and unsubsidized loans because the program is not degree-based. Residential living facilities also do not offer subsidized housing costs.

This can wreak havoc on parents financially trying to support their child through the program. While grants are available, parents are responsible for seeking other financial options. Shalvey and business partner Crystal Harrington suggest parents look at 529 plans, ABLE accounts and scholarships at the local level and universities.

Children are the future

Children with special needs deserve a life that keeps them engaged and it can be comforting to know colleges are starting to create programs for these families to consider.

Tim Ahlberg, assistant director of admissions at Elmhurst, says he sees a positive future for young adults with special needs. “I see the students more independent equipped with social-emotional skills, ready to join the workforce,” he says.


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