As parents of a child with autism, Down syndrome, or other special needs, we aren’t “done” when our child finishes school or gets a job. In fact, we may have to work harder than ever. As our children reach adulthood, one of the biggest questions is whether they’ll be able to live independently. In some cases, the answer is clearly “no.” But for others, the possibility is both exciting and terrifying.

As much as we want our kids to live full and independent lives, it can be nerve-wracking to think of them living somewhere else. How can we tell if they’re ready? There are so many options, from group homes and roommates to solo apartments. How do we know which one is best? There’s no single right answer, but here are some tips we’ve found to help you work through the hurdles of getting your child ready for independent living.

Job Skills for Independent Living

Beginning as early as age 13, it’s a good idea to work with school officials to incorporate job and life skills into your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP). The main factors that determine job options for young people with special needs are education, training, and willing employers.

In some cases, a vocational school can provide the training necessary to give a leg up to children or adults with special needs. That makes it important to find a school that matches their personality, limitations, and aptitudes. However, many other children with special needs remain in public education until age 21 or 22, and they’ll need an IEP that emphasizes job and life skills.

Daily self-care, cooking meals, housekeeping, handling money, and learning how to drive or use public transportation are essential skills for independent living. Other experiences that can help build kids’ confidence include learning typical workday routines and practicing what to do in emergency situations.

Helpful Resources for Finding Jobs

There are many organizations dedicated to helping grown children with special needs find a job. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Just One Break, Inc. acts as a liaison between job searchers and employers who want to hire individuals with disabilities.
  • The U.S. Department of Labor offers a job search page that features links for essential tools and resources to help job seekers with special needs.
  • Career One Stop is another U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored site with a state job bank where visitors can browse available jobs in their area.

Preparing to Move Out

When your son or daughter feels ready to move out, it can be hard to let go — even if you back their decision. Living independently requires an array of skills that a child with special needs should learn to master on their own, and it’s never too early to start working on them with your child.

  • Basic skills. Starting with the most basic steps, brush up on daily living skills, including hygiene and grooming, maintaining appropriate boundaries for personal safety, and managing medication. These are skills you may currently help your child with, but that they would need to be able to do alone before getting their own place.
  • Household skills. Cleaning house, doing laundry, safely preparing food, maintaining home security, and paying bills are all part of independent living.
  • Further help. For some young people with disabilities, additional tools are needed to master the art of self-care. Start identifying these areas and possible solutions as early as possible so that your child will be more confident when the time comes to put their skills into practice.

Planning Your House Hunting

Before you start browsing real estate sites or taking tours of nearby homes, plan out a strategy for the search. Consider the various factors that will likely affect your child’s transition, and find the resources that can help.

  • Finances. Do some research on how your child’s financial situation will change when they turn 18. Many kids with disabilities qualify for Medicaid waivers and other support. (Here’s an example of options available to those living in Texas.) Factor in money from state and federal entities, especially housing waivers that can supplement your child’s finances for rent and other expenses.
  • Mentoring. Connecting with other parents whose kids are a few years older is a great way to learn the ropes from someone who’s already gone through the process.  
  • Location. Depending on your situation and your child’s readiness, you may also need to search for affordable cities with readily accessible services, like Seattle, for instance.
  • Logistics. A checklist or guide can help you identify features of an accessible apartment to narrow down your choices for a space that meets your child’s specific needs.

House-Hunting Tips

Once you’re finally ready to look at group homes, apartments or private facilities, include your child on each tour so you can both be comfortable with the final decision. As a baseline, make sure each place has good exterior lights, a large common area if it’s a group home, and a yard with seating for outdoor activities. And keep a few other things in mind:

  • Rights. If you decide to rent, make sure you both understand your child’s rights as a renter. This information becomes invaluable should a conflict arise with a roommate, landlord, or fellow tenant.
  • Local amenities. When considering a neighborhood, get familiar with the area’s bus routes, restaurants, stores, and parks. Especially if mobility is an issue, ensure that there’s a grocery store nearby, as well as entertainment such as movie theaters. Making a checklist of desirable features in each neighborhood can help narrow down the choices.
  • Contacts. Make a list or map with the addresses and phone numbers of local places your child is likely to frequent, so they can be confident of getting around easily and tending to basic errands on their own.

Another option, if you know other parents of children with special needs who also are ready to move out, is to consider pooling your money for a private home. In a roommate or duplex situation, your children could live together and share responsibilities for laundry, bills and other tasks. Alternatively, there are simple modifications at home that can provide more independence for your child. You could modify your own home or property to create a mother-in-law suite or apartment-like space.

Final Thoughts

Every situation and every child is different. The workable ways for grown children with special needs to live independently are as numerous and different as the young people themselves. However, if you can anticipate and address the factors common to this kind of transition, that preparation can give you and your child several advantages when it’s time for them to spread their wings and fly the coop.