Tag: Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Community Learning Series sheds light on autism, transition

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Parents who attended the College of Education’s Spring 2018 Community Learning Series left with a loud-and-clear message.

They must advocate strongly and continuously for their children with autism, especially when those children are in high school or nearing the age of 22 as they move into adulthood.

Future teachers of Special Education heard the same call to action during the April 10 event.

“It behooves the educator to take it upon themselves to be a lifelong learner in the areas related to transition,” said Christine Putlak, assistant director of the A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative. “Transition is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of the field.”

Daunting as it might seem, however, the process is not impossible.

And, as moderator Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez told the crowd of nearly 200, “Tonight, we want to focus on practices that work.”

Johnston-Rodriguez, a professor in the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, began with statistics on young adults on the autism spectrum.

Nineteen percent of young adults with ASD between the ages of 20 and 25 have lived independently from their parents without supervision after graduation. Only 58 percent had ever worked during their early 20s.

Toni Van Laarhoven, Benji Rubin and Christine Putlak

Toni Van Laarhoven, Benji Rubin and Christine Putlak

Meanwhile, while 97 percent received transition service during high school, many are left without such supports and services afterward. Thirty-seven percent “disconnected,” neither continuing their education nor working outside the home; 28 percent were unemployed, not attending postsecondary school or training and without support or services.

Benji Rubin, an attorney with Rubin Law Offices whose practice is exclusively limited to special needs legal and future planning, told parents that they need to begin the work toward the age 22 cut-off as soon as possible. Age 21 is too late, he said.

High on the must-do list is the PUNS (Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services), the statewide waiting list. Those without funding or services could find themselves simply “sitting at home” while they wait beyond their 22nd birthdays.

“It’s important that you push,” he said. “It’s important that you not accept them not receiving services at age 22.”

Siblings of young adults with ASD also must prepare, Rubin said.

“The sibling perspective is crucial. They’re the ones who are going to be carrying that torch when mom and dad no longer can,” he said. “Include the siblings as early as possible.”

Khushbu Dalvi, Kori Jung and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers

Khushbu Dalvi, Kori Jung and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers

NIU Presidential Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven and her twin sister, Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers, vocational coordinator at Waubonsie Valley High School, spoke of the power of self-determination and self-advocacy.

Their Project My Voice enables students with intellectual disabilities to participate fully in their transition planning through expressing their preferences in such areas as education, employment, living arrangements, health, safety, community and more.

“Ask individuals what they want,” Van Laarhoven said. “It is important that they become empowered and self-advocate for their futures.”

“Authentic work experiences are important for individuals with disabilities to have prior to exiting the school system,” Van Laarhoven-Myers said. “Not only is it important to build on the students’ strengths, interests and preferences, it is also critical to expand and capitalize on natural supports within the environment while putting in place strategies that help students cope with changing circumstances in the work setting.”

Panelists also told the audience about Indicator 13 – it calls for annual updates of postsecondary goals of young adults ages 16 and older who have Individualized Education Plans – and its demand for evidence that the students are invited to their IEP meetings.

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Kori Jung, teacher and case manager in the Arlington Heights District 214 Transition Program, advised future teachers in the audience to truly know their students as well as their families and to advocate for them.

“If we can focus on the strengths-based model, our students are going to be successful,” Jung said. “Everyone has the right to work, and everyone can work.”

Khushbu Dalvi, program coordinator for the Parents Alliance Employment Project, explained her role in Project Search, an internship-based program in local hospitals.

The initiative also helps students with their interview skills – “Even if you know how to do the job, you still have to get a foot in the door,” Dalvi said – as well as leadership development. Students who’ve already become integrated in the hospitals can then teach their peers about how to succeed at the internships.

Questions from the audience touched on such issues as customized jobs, how to find employers, equal wages, the most important government benefits, physical education and more.



Community Learning Series will explore ‘transitions’ to adulthood for students on autism spectrum

dotsDuring the first 21 years of their lives, individuals with autism are offered critical support services through their local public schools.

By law, those services must include “transition” planning that begins when the students turn 14½, providing nearly seven years of preparation for the next stage of their lives.

Yet when that assistance ends, many of those young adults and their parents are left with the same question.

Now what?

“It’s a very important topic right now because there have been some changes in the legislation,” says Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, associate professor of Special Education. “One change goes back to 2004: the IDEA law on special education, which changed the language to really focus on transition and on meaningful outcomes in the three areas schools are accountable for: community living; careers and employment; and postsecondary education.”

Modifications to the Higher Education Act, meanwhile, require that access to postsecondary education is available to students with intellectual disabilities.

And, in 2017, Illinois become an “employment-first” state to promote “community-based, integrated employment as the first option for employment-related services for individuals with disabilities, physical, intellectual or behavioral.”

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

The NIU College of Education’s upcoming Community Learning Series – “Transitioning to the Adult World: Connecting the Dots for Young Adults with Autism” – will help parents, students, teachers, employers and future educators make sense of it all.

Scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, the event takes place at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road. A reception begins at 5:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public, the event will feature six forward-thinking panelists who will share their innovative and exemplary approaches, supports and successes that have empowered their students to achieve productive lives.

  • Khushbu Davi, program coordinator, Parents Alliance Employment Project
  • Kori Jung, teacher/case manager, District 214 Transition Program, Arlington Heights
  • Christine Putlak, assistant director, A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative
  • Benji Rubin, attorney, Special Needs Legal and Future Planning, Rubin Law Offices
  • Toni Van Laarhoven, professor, NIU Department of Special and Early Education
  • Traci Van Laarhoven, vocational coordinator, Waubonsie Valley High School

“There are so many resources that teachers and parents need to plan ahead,” Toni Van Laarhoven says, “so we’re looking at what’s out there: What are some of the benefits available? What are some of the legal things people need to think about, such as guardianship? How do we prepare individuals if they choose to go the college route? These are things people really have to start thinking about.”

“We’re really focusing on services that are innovative and community-based,” adds Johnston-Rodriguez, who considers transition a matter of civil rights and social justice.

“Some states have done away with all of their ‘sheltered workshops,’ and the emphasis now for schools is to prepare these students for some kind of education, career or employment in the community.”

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Van Laarhoven, a Presidential Teaching Professor at NIU, and her identical twin sister will talk about their Project MY VOICE – a person-centered planning tool that equips high school students with autism, and/or intellectual disabilities, to participate and have a voice in their own Individualized Education Programs via multimedia.

Johnston-Rodriguez, meanwhile, is also piloting a program that challenges students with disabilities to create their own PowerPoint presentations based on career exploration and creating a plan for where they want to go with their lives and how they plan to get there.

Lisle-based Parents Alliance Employment Project is partnering with Cadence Health in Project SEARCH, to offer internships at Central DuPage Hospital to young adults with developmental disabilities.

Many corporations “have gotten on board with employing people with special needs in meaningful kinds of jobs,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “There’s also been a lot happening at the federal level with research and programs on customized employment. We’re seeing all of this come to fruition.”

Both professors say the evening will enlighten everyone, from those adolescents, parents, families, teachers, service providers and employers already engaged in transition to future teachers of individuals with special needs.

“Preparing for adulthood is extremely important, and has its challenges for people with autism as it does for any young adult, but it really does take a lot of planning, support and resources,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

dots-2“As for any adolescent, these years are very formative. But for students with disabilities, they are even more so, because this is their last chance to get really intensive academic preparation and independent living skills and really focus on career and employment skills,” she adds. “In school, everyone gets a free education, but when you get into the adult world after 21, that all changes.”

Van Laarhoven especially wants teachers and future teachers to attend the Community Learning Series.

“Even though teachers of Special Education are aware of transition and what goes into it, that’s an area where they need much more support. There’s so much to think about, and there are so many moving parts,” she says. “I would like them to be able to think outside the box.”

For more information, call (815) 753-1619 or email seed@niu.edu.