Are Four Years of High School Enough? When to Stay Longer

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Most High School students can’t wait for graduation day. It is often seen as a day that marks the end of four years of hard work and that signals the transition to adulthood. But if you have a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who is receiving special education services, your child is entitled to stay in High School until the end of the school year in which your child turns 21. For many students in special education, this can mean an additional three or even four years of free education. Should you take advantage of this opportunity?

The decision to stay in school past the usual four years of High School is very much an individualized one and should be based on your child’s needs and your child’s and your own preferences. Below are things to consider when deciding what is best for your family.

  • Is your child eligible to graduate?  
    • States have different graduation requirements; however, in general students graduate when they have the requisite number of credits, have passed one or more required assessments, and/or have reached the goals set in their Individualized Education  Programs (IEPs). If your child doesn’t seem on track to meet the requirements of your state and district, perhaps some extra time in High School will make it easier to do so. If you are not sure of your child’s progress, request an IEP meeting to discuss and also consider requesting a re-evaluation of your child’s present educational levels, needs, and skills.
  • What will your child do after High School?  
    • Higher education? Perhaps your child can benefit from taking classes at a community college while still enrolled in high school. Students can be “dually enrolled,” so long as the classes taken at the community college level are in furtherance of the student’s IEP goals. If your child is considering a trade school, there are many “vo-tech” programs in high school, which may provide the training your child is looking for.
    • Supportive day program? These can be difficult to find and the hours may not be as long as the school day your child is accustomed to. Create an IEP that mimics what you hope to obtain through a supportive day program. The program could include community outings to help improve your child’s ability to purchase food from a grocery store, eat in a restaurant, or take part in recreational activities, or instruction on doing laundry and other necessary home chores, for example.
    • A job? Vocational training is often available to High School students with IEP goals related to developing job skills. Indeed, once your child turns 18 (even earlier in some states, like Pennsylvania, through the Early Reach Initiative), his or her IEP can include working with the local Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to further refine interests and abilities and to obtain a job coach or participate in job sampling. Research shows that individuals with ASD are often unemployed or underemployed (working in a job below their capabilities). Extra time to refine skills and to develop work experience can only help in today’s job market.
    • Unsure? This uncertainty may be an indication that your child could benefit from more time in High School to develop both short and long term goals for the future. Your child’s Transition Plan (a part of the IEP) should include support to help your child and you come up with a plan.
  • How are your child’s independent living skills?  
    • Your child may benefit from extra time to develop adaptive skills, such as learning to use public transportation, hygiene self-care, or money math skills. Take an honest inventory of areas in which your child needs assistance and develop IEP goals to help your child learn to do more for him or herself.
  • Does your child like school?  
    • Some students simply don’t like attending school. Maybe they’ve had a bad experience, such as bullying, frustration, or isolation. These students may be adamant that they aren’t going any longer, despite what parents, teachers, and therapists may think best. By changing up what, how, and where your child learns in High School, perhaps by providing instruction at a job site or at a vo-tech program specializing in developing a special interest (computers, for example), your child may realize that continuing High School doesn’t have to mean continuing to take the same subjects in the same building.
    • Your child’s wish to leave High School after four years may relate to his or her perception that not finishing in four somehow reflects badly on him or her as a person; your child may think he or she is a failure if more time is needed. These thoughts are closely related to self-esteem and self-advocacy. Work with your school’s counseling department or a private therapist to make sure your child has a positive self-image.
    • Your child may wish to graduate in four years so that he or she can take part in the graduation ceremony with his or her same age peers. In many states, including Pennsylvania, students with IEPs who are continuing their High School Education beyond four years are allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony for their class, and will receive a certificate of completion in place of a diploma at the ceremony.
    • As a member of the IEP team (beginning at age 14 or 16, depending on the state in which you live), your child should be an active participant in IEP meetings. This enables your child to learn about different curricular and placement options and to weigh in on his or her preferences. If your child remains adamant about finishing High School in four years, listen to your child and respect his or her right to self-determination.

Remember, there is some middle ground. Your child may stay only one or two years extra, if this is what is needed and appropriate to accomplish the transition goals established by the IEP team. Staying until age 21 is an option, not a requirement.

What if My School Wants My Child to Graduate After Four Years?

Sometimes schools and parents disagree as to whether a student is ready to graduate. Perhaps you and your child wish to extend the high school years in order to have additional time to work on work, life, or educational skills. Yet the school believes that your child will meet graduation requirements and be able to graduate after four years of High School. What should you do?

Graduation is considered a change in placement for a student with an IEP. If your child has an IEP, your school must provide you with written notice of the school’s intent to graduate your child from High School. If your child is not yet 21 years old, you may disagree with this decision by utilizing dispute resolution.

Additionally, you may want to request a re-evaluation of your child. The school is not required to re-evaluate your child prior to graduation; however, getting an updated assessment of your child may help you and the rest of the team determine if indeed your child has met IEP goals and is ready to graduate.

To help avoid conflicts over the graduation timeline, it is very important for you and your child to be active participants developing the Transition Plan, which is contained within your child’s IEP. This way, you can include a series of goals for your child to work on. When one goal is reached, another related and more challenging goal can replace it, ensuring that your child has time to generalize and expand upon what is learned.

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Last Updated: May 2, 2017

The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.


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