Before her daughter was born, Heather Arnold of Durham, North Carolina, dreamed about college, a good career and an independent life for her child.

However, Arnold’s child has depression and Oppositional Defiance Disorder, a condition defined by the Mayo Clinic as a frequent and persistent pattern of anger, irritability, defiance or vindictiveness toward parents and authority figures.

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Most parents have the same desire to see their children become happy, functioning adults able to thrive in the real world. But for children with special needs ranging from autism to ADHD, from cystic fibrosis to blindness, living independently is an entirely new challenge. And helping these kids make the transition is challenging beyond words.

“I’ve learned to be optimistic and adjust my expectations,” said Arnold. “My child is exceptionally intelligent. But she has trouble handling her emotions. I believe she will be able to support herself and live on her own. It might take her a bit longer, and the path will be different from the one I envisioned.”

The Individual Pathways
“The key is to be open to all situations,” advised Michelle Primiano, a guidance counselor at The Calais School in Whippany, New Jersey.

College isn’t for everyone, and some students who enroll may graduate in five or six years — instead of the traditional four.

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“Everyone works on a different timeline,” said Primiano. “Some students will graduate and go to a community college, some will do college in four or five years, some will go to trade schools, and others will find work after high school.”

Lisa Marie Vallo, a structured learning experience coordinator at The Calais School, agreed. “We start looking at our children’s futures when they reach high school. That’s when we start to put plans in place,” she said.

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She and Primiano suggest that special needs students who are educable work closely with the administration at their schools.

“If your child has special needs, he will need an IEP (Individualized Education Plan).” An IEP is a written statement developed by the child’s school together with the parents to set realistic learning goals and to state the services the school district will provide to your child.

While many public schools offer services to children with special needs, some parents have to take their children out of their district so the kids can get an education tailored to their abilities.

“I had to fight my district because my son wasn’t getting the services he needed,” said Robin Weber of South Orange, New Jersey. “He’s on the autism spectrum and the school district couldn’t handle his emotional outbursts.”

Her child is doing better since he was placed in a school for children with similar challenges.

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“What many parents learn is they have to be their child’s advocate,” said Vallo. “That is made easier when they have a support system in place. Parents need to partner with their child’s school to make sure they are getting the education they need.”

Schools like Calais offer programs for students to complete high school in five or six years. The school also has social skills programs that teach students everything from money management and personal hygiene to how to dress for a job interview. “We practice and review,” Vallo said.

Students may learn how to navigate public transportation, how to budget their finances, and how to communicate with others in job situations. “With repeated practice, students become confident in their abilities,” Vallo said.

Exploring Careers Early
Many special needs schools offer their high school students a look at various jobs.

“When my son told me he was interested in repairing heating and cooling systems, I was not overjoyed,” said Kerri Adams, of Westfield, New Jersey. “I admit I’m a bit of a snob. My son is good with his hands and has always enjoyed fixing things. He’s good at it. After talking to his teachers, I learned he can make good money in this field.”

She added, “My goal has always been that I raise an independent child who can live well on his own. I’m not going to be able to support him forever.”

At many of these schools, the career exploration begins in eighth grade.

“They are young and don’t always know what they want to be when they graduate or what type of opportunities are available,” said Primiano. “At The Calais School, we work with several different businesses — from restaurants and supermarkets to child care centers and florists to computer tech companies and libraries. We share a variety of career opportunities with our students.”

One student with physical disabilities landed a management job in the produce department at a local supermarket. Another leads the IT department for two municipalities.

“The work opportunities vary,” Primiano explained. “A lot of colleges are offering programs to special needs students. What we do is prepare our students for their next steps, and we do that by working with the parents. It’s all about partnerships and being an advocate for your child.”