Under federal law, students with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education. That means they can receive the supports they need up until they turn 21.
After that, many of these young adults aren’t ready to live on their own, find jobs or go on to college.
NHPR correspondent Sheryl Rich Kern has the story as part of her series, Challenges of Autism.
Mackenzie Trippier is talking to her parents about going to Greece with the seniors at Pelham High.
Deborah Trippier: "So what do you think about going to Greece?"
Mackenzie Trippier: "Definitely, I really want to go."
Deborah. "Pretty far away."
Mom: "You think you’d like being away like that?"
Like most parents of teenagers, the Trippiers worry about the costs and of course safety. And then there’s Mackenzie’s autism.
Deborah Trippier: "The biggest issue right now is her executive functioning skills."
Deborah Trippier is Mackenzie’s mom.
Deborah Trippier: "Her ability to get up, make breakfast, dress herself, brush her teeth, put on deodorant. It takes two of us in the morning to get her out to school every day."
Trippier says her daughter was diagnosed with autism in elementary school when her teachers noticed she had trouble staying focused and picking up on social cues.
Mackenzie Trippier: "Sometimes I would feel I didn’t fit in at all. And it was confusing to me because I didn’t know why people were treating me differently."
Like other high-functioning autistic kids, Mackenzie learned how to read faces and react appropriately.
This spring, she’ll graduate high school. For the past year, she’s been meeting with a counselor from the University of New Hampshire to discuss her options for independent living.
Last summer, the counselor helped her find a summer art program. Mackenzie lived in a dorm for two weeks on her own.
The family is also looking at colleges that may provide some sort of support, like mentoring. Still, Mackenzie’s mom worries about her daughter’s social skills.
Deborah Trippier: "Do you want to go to the movies with a friend or the mall?"
Mackenzie Trippier: "It’s a fun time but I just have no interest in it until it comes up."
Deborah: "What would you rather do?"
Mackenzie: "Sit in my room."
Deborah: "And do what?"
Mackenzie: "Draw or something." (chuckles)
Deborah: "Put your headphones on and cancel out the world?"
Mackenzie: "Yeah, watch movies."
Deborah: "Hang out with mom and dad?"
Mackenzie: "Yeah." There's a pause.
Deborah: "Maybe college will be different."
Mackenzie: Yeah, I guess.
Preparing for work
But if Mackenzie doesn’t fit in, or even if she does, eventually she’ll find herself facing the work world. And that, says Kirsten Murphy, sets up a whole new set of challenges. Murphy is the Director of the New Hampshire Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders.
Murphy: "Think what it is that employers respond to in your average job interview. They want you to be a colleague they want to spend time with. And if you have bad social skills, that’s not going to come across as particularly appealing."
So, one question facing potential employees is: should they mention their autism during a job interview?
Murphy: "I recommend that you do, but always with some explanation about what that means. One way to describe Asperger’s is to describe it in positive terms. People with Asperger’s are incredibly diligent, for example. We can call that preservative or diligent. Sounds better when you say diligent and it’s also true."
Murphy says that many kids on the autism spectrum can be obsessive about one thing or another. And they can use those traits to their advantage.
Ellen Cavanaugh is a nurse practitioner in Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s child development center. She says even people with autism who are non-verbal can find work… with a little help.
One of her patients spent a year and a half preparing for a job.
Cavanaugh: "He was obsessive about dressing up in a uniform. So it was decided that we would work with the local precinct. He got a job. He wore a uniform. And his job was to check the police cars in. And he did that five days a week."
The State’s Departments of Health and Human Services and Education are collaborating to provide career training for autistic students while they’re still in school.
Kirsten Murphy with the New Hampshire Council on Autism Spectrum Disorders:
Murphy: "The finding from a study at Harvard School of Public Health is that the average lifetime incremental cost of a diagnosis of autism is 3.2 million dollars."
And for kids who don’t receive treatment as young children, but go on to need adult services:
Murphy: "90 percent of their lifetime costs is in their adult services."
In New Hampshire, according to the state’s Bureau of Development Services, that support can cost, on average, $60,000 a year.
Experts in the field agree: in addition to saving money, helping students as young children improves their chances of leading productive lives as adults.