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The Transition to Adulthood

The Transition to Adulthood

Published: Aug. 14, 2020Updated: Mar. 14, 2024

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Children with disabilities transition to adulthood in as many different ways as they are unique, each with their own goals, talents, and challenges. There are a variety of options in California for kids with disabilities to further their education and/or begin working after high school. To help students plan for their future, some schools offer partnership programs through contracts with the Department of Rehabilitation while others have created their own career-related exploration course or curriculum, including Workability programs.

Here, we’ll walk you through the transition process, including:

  • resources for transition planning in high school
  • the availability of college programs
  • job and career training
  • the importance of person-centered planning
  • supported decision-making and conservatorship
  • what public benefits are available and how to apply
  • independent and supportive living services
  • day- and community-based programs

The transition to adulthood: Who is responsible, and when?

The transition to adulthood is a team effort that requires the coordination of services from multiple agencies, including your child’s school district, Regional Center, Medi-Cal, Social Security, and the Department of Rehabilitation. For some families, this may also include services from the Employment Development Department (EDD), America’s Job Centers of California (AJCC), Medicare, and/or In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS).

The school district remains responsible for the provision or coordination of most transition services, including day programs and vocational training, until a student graduates from high school or turns age 22. (Students who obtain a certificate of completion or a Section 51225.31 alternative pathway diploma can still receive school services until age 22). Once an individual leaves the school district, the responsibility shifts to Regional Center for providing educational services, day programs, vocational programs, etc.

Whether your child is a Regional Center client or not, entering adulthood involves a lot of processes where you may be required to prove the level of your young adult’s capacity to care for themselves, including their ability to provide for their personal needs (physical health, food, clothing, shelter, or finances) and make decisions. For this reason, it may be worth your while in the last triennial IEP evaluation before age 18 to have the school conduct thorough testing to generate reports that you can later use for DOR or court proceedings.

Start preparing for the future with an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP)

Creating an Individualized Transition Plan, or ITP, is part of the IEP and a great opportunity to begin building a road map for your child’s transition by identifying programs, resources, and services your child is interested in.

Under the California Education Code, the school district is required to initiate formal transition planning no later than a student’s 16th birthday, but families can ask for this process to begin as early as eighth grade. To learn about what the ITP entails, how to start the process, and which resources to check out, read our article Individual Transition Plan 101.

During the ITP process, one important resource to learn about is the Department of Rehabilitation (DOR). DOR services are available to individuals with disabilities starting at age 16. Students can get assistance with job counseling, workplace readiness training, self-advocacy training, and even financial assistance for a college education that leads to employment. Learn more in our article The Transition to Adulthood: How the Department of Rehabilitation Can Help.

Explore school district adult transition programs for students age 18-22

Be sure you know the differences between a certificate of completion and a high school diploma, including different possible ways to obtain a diploma, and communicate with your IEP team regularly about what your child is on track to receive. Regional Center may not be able to offer supports such as job coaching or a day program until you have exhausted the generic support offered by the school district to students aged 18-22 who have a certificate of completion or a diploma earned through the alternative pathway for students on CAA.

Larger school districts such as LAUSD may have a variety of programs for you to choose from. Smaller school districts may only have one Adult Transition program (for example, Manhattan Beach Unified’s Choice program) or may share a program with their SELPA. You do not have to accept a one-size-fits-all approach. Talk to your IEP team about other options such as participating in vocational training at a Regional Occupational Center or taking a community college class with the school district supports. Your school district may contract with other agencies such as ICAN or New Horizons to provide job coaching and independent living skills.

Having taken a non-diploma path or alternate pathway to a diploma, the focus during the 18-22-year-old adult transition program is typically on daily living skills and on employment. Most programs offer a supported workplace experience and transportation training. However, there is nothing to say that the school should not continue to educate on basic academic skills such as reading, writing, and math. For more about this topic, stay tuned for our upcoming article on school district adult transition programs for 18-22-year-olds.

Learn more about post-secondary education options

Some students with disabilities earn their high school diploma and go on to earn a traditional two- or four-year degree with accommodations from the college or university. In college, creating a supportive and inclusive academic environment is paramount for students with disabilities. Check out our list of college accommodations for students with disabilities here!

In the last ten years, there has been a real shift in post-secondary programs for students with disabilities who require academic, social-emotional, and other supports that extend beyond what is typically offered at two- and four-year institutions.

There are more post-secondary options throughout California for students with an intellectual or developmental disability to prepare them for employment. For a deep dive into the types of programs available and how to find the right fit, see our article about college for students with intellectual disabilities. If college isn’t the right fit, another option is trade or vocational school, which can offer focused, career-driven education full of opportunities. Check out this article to learn more about how students with disabilities can apply to and attend trade school, including a few scholarship opportunities.

Options for students with disabilities to attend college or other programs

Explore work training programs

Many Regional Centers offer resource fairs and/or career fairs in the spring. These fairs can be very useful to families when their child is in their early-to-mid high school years, as they showcase many of the resources, programs, and services that are available. Exploring the options early will allow your child to visit the programs they are interested in with plenty of time to prepare and make decisions.

Work training programs run the gamut from trade-specific training to targeted skills such as resume building and computer skills. Many vendors offer supported employment services that provide ongoing coaching to support permanent, paid positions. Specific trades can be explored in areas like culinary arts or retail; other companies cater to budding artists by marketing, selling, and commissioning artwork. Many job training programs in packaging and manufacturing can lead to employment at the same site. These are often through a formal apprenticeship program, a PIP (Paid Internship Program), a college setting, and/or a worksource center like America’s Job Centers of California (AJCC) or the Employment Development Department (EDD).

In this clip, special education advocate (and owner of KnowIEPs) Dr. Sarah Pelangka, BCBA-D, highlights the importance of making sure that the program your student is interested in is the right fit for them:

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

For more information about vocational programs and colleges, see this resource list from the Undivided Research team.

In many ways, we are preparing our kids to be adults from the moment they are born. As the age of majority approaches, parents begin to step back and allow our children to do more and decide more independently. Teens with developmental and intellectual disabilities need to practice independence gradually in the years before their 18th birthday.

Although our children become legal adults at age 18, we want to continue to provide support with their life decisions, especially when it comes to important medical, financial, and educational matters. Many parents are able to support their loved ones while helping them develop independence by using supported decision-making, sometimes in combination with other legal documents such as a power of attorney, court authorization of medical treatment, representative payee, trusts, use of facilitators to assist in decision-making, and advocacy training. You can read more about supported decision-making here.

The system of conservatorship (or guardianship in other states) is intended as a last resort for adults who need significant support making decisions about their finances, medical care, housing, or other legal matters. Our article about limited and full conservatorships in California goes into much more detail.

Whether parents encourage their young adult’s autonomy through informal supported decision-making or they establish formal documents for the process, it’s important to follow the principles of person-centered planning. To make a person-centered plan means to focus on the whole person and their desires, interests, preferences, and dreams. It means to begin with the individual’s vision of themselves in the future, bringing together the various people and organizations involved in their life, and working together to help bring that vision to reality.

Person-centered planning is essential to assuring that services and activities are driven by the individual’s hopes and dreams. All planning processes throughout your child’s life, such as your Regional Center IPP and your school IEP, should be (but often aren't) based on person-centered planning principles. Many families find it helpful to create their own person-centered plan to drive the transition to adulthood and ensure that the opportunities we are making available are opportunities that our young adults want. Check out this article for an in-depth look at the person-centered planning process.

Apply for public benefits and other support

Regional Center

Regional Center can provide or coordinate independent living skills training, personal assistance, supportive housing, adult day programs, work opportunities, tailored services, and more. Some Regional Centers will transfer a child to a new transition-focused service coordinator when they turn 14 in preparation for the transition to adulthood. The possibilities for how recipients can use Regional Center resources have grown with the Self-Determination Program.

Keep in mind that Regional Center is generally the payor of last resort, which means that families are expected to utilize generic resources before Regional Center will fund those services. Generic resources include agencies that have a legal responsibility to serve the general public and receive public funds for providing those services, such as Medi-Cal and In-Home Supportive Services.

Supplemental Security Income

Once a person turns 18, they can apply online for Supplemental Security Income benefits (SSI) through the Social Security Administration. Qualifying for SSI is based on Social Security’s definition of disability and financial eligibility, and it automatically includes Medi-Cal coverage. When a person with a disability is 18 or over, only their own income and assets are taken into account, not their parents’. For this reason, most 18-year-olds will qualify for monthly benefits. See our article on Supplemental Security Income to learn more about preparing to set this up for your child when they turn 18, including making sure they have a photo ID from the DMV (which is free for SSI recipients).

Those who do not qualify for SSI may still be eligible for Medi-Cal and other public assistance programs like CalFresh. It’s a good idea to stay on top of what public benefits are available, as guidelines for allowable income requirements and various Return to Work and incentive programs are regularly updated. You might find it helpful to take advantage of resources like Disability Benefits 101 or a disability benefits planner.

You may also want to consider setting up a special needs trust and/or an ABLE account, both of which are designed to allow a person with disabilities to hold assets without affecting their eligibility for social services. You can read about both of those options here.

Independent and Supported Living Services

Independent Living Services (ILS) are designed to support adults with disabilities while they are still living at home with their families. Typically, recipients of ILS already possess basic self-help skills (or employ personal care aides to assist with these skills), and they need functional training for activities such as household chores, laundry, budgeting, cooking, and grocery shopping. ILS are vendored and monitored by Regional Center and are generally not provided long-term; the hope is that once a person acquires the skills to live independently, the services can be faded out.

Supported Living Services (SLS) are provided to Regional Center clients who are ready to move into their own home or shared living situation, and these services are specific to each person’s individual and ongoing support needs. SLS can help with activities of daily living, including social and behavioral training, maintaining a home, choosing roommates and personal and/or health aides, purchasing furniture and other necessities, and managing finances, to name a few. These services are designed to support an individual’s progress toward long-range personal goals and foster a meaningful place in their community. Because these are often life-long endeavors, SLS are offered for as long and as often as needed, with the flexibility required to meet a person’s changing needs over time and without looking solely at the level of disability.

People who choose to live in their own homes will often need information about affordable housing options, sources of financial support such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and how to stretch a limited budget to meet living expenses. These are ordinary challenges that are inseparable from a truly self-directed life in the community. For the many adults for whom SLS make sense, such challenges are often road signs on the path to a satisfying life. Some Regional Centers offer roommate-matching opportunities and referrals to affordable housing options. In some areas, you will also find residential housing programs, although these are fewer and typically quite competitive to get into as they tend to remain at capacity.

Community-based or day programs for young adults with disabilities

There are a variety of community-based programs that can fill a young adult’s life with learning, enrichment, increased independence, community outings, life skills training, and socializing. Some examples local to Los Angeles include Best Buddies Living, the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, Giant Steps, and New Horizons. Many of these programs reinforce daily living skills that are essential to living as independently as possible, and some, like Able Arts Work, focus on self-enrichment and the arts. Stay tuned for a future article with more resources on this topic.



The transition to adulthood: Who is responsible, and when?

Start preparing for the future with an Individualized Transition Plan (ITP)

Explore school district adult transition programs for students age 18-22

Learn more about post-secondary education options

Explore work training programs

Prepare to support your loved one as a legal adult

Apply for public benefits and other support

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Karen Ford CullUndivided Content Specialist and Writer

With a passion for fostering inclusive education and empowering families in the disability community, Karen Ford Cull brings a wealth of experience as a Content Specialist and Advocate. With a diverse background spanning education, advocacy, and volunteer work, Karen is committed to creating a more inclusive and supportive world for children with disabilities. Karen, her husband, and three sons are committed to ensuring that their son with Down syndrome has every opportunity to lead an enviable life. As the Content Specialist at Undivided, Karen guides writers to produce informative and impactful content that ensures families have access to comprehensive and reliable resources.

Reviewed by


  • Dr. Sarah Pelangka, Special Education Advocate, BCBA-D, and owner of KnowIEPs
  • Lisa Carey, Undivided's Education Advocate

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