Adam Salomon at his high school graduation. Salomon’s mother, Karen, says he was not prepared for life after high school. Credit: Karen Salomon for The Hechinger Report

This preparation needs to “start at least in high school if not the lower grades,” he added, “with students really learning to identify their strengths and their needs.”

Schools recognize the importance of such soft skills, but often have to prioritize students’ other needs, including academic, social and emotional, said Alice Shillingsburg, a board-certified behavior analyst and an assistant director for the National Autism Center.

Shillingsburg added that it’s possible that schools are teaching soft skills to students with disabilities but those students may have trouble applying them in college or the real world. “There’s a pretty distinct difference between a classroom setting and work setting,” she said. Students may be used to practicing soft skills with certain supports and individuals, and then a new environment with new distractions can “throw someone off” she said.

Related: They told me I’d never go to college but I just finished my freshman year – what about all the other students with autism?

Schools often assume parents are teaching their children how to speak up for themselves, study for tests and prioritize homework assignments, according to a brief by the National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability.

“The transition going from high school to college was definitely difficult. Freshman year kind of hit me pretty hard.”

Many parents who were interviewed for this series said that they worked on soft skills with their children, but also expected schools to teach and reinforce them. “In the end … a lot of the onus will come back on the school. It is a large task, and it is more of an ‘it takes a village’ approach,” said Janine Solomon, an attorney at Massachusetts Advocates for children, an advocacy group that works to promote rights for special education students.

Solomon once represented a student who sued Dracut Public Schools in northeastern Massachusetts. (The names of the student and his parents were anonymous in the suit.) The student had met all the academic requirements to graduate, but had not received help in developing his “pragmatic language skills, social skills, organizational, vocational skills, and travel skills” according to the lawsuit. As a result, the lawsuit continued, “he is ill equipped to participate successfully in postsecondary education, employment, and independent community living.”

The student was academically prepared for college, so the district said it had fulfilled its obligations, Solomon said. But his family argued that wasn’t enough.

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“He didn’t have many of the skills to get about and plan and organize his life and his day outside of school,” Solomon said. “And anything he was doing within the school environment was not translating to his life after school. That was going to be impacting his ability to go on and be independent in his life.”

Solomon’s client won the case. The district appealed and the majority of the ruling was upheld.

Dracut officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Who is in Special Education?

Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.

Jacqueline Reis, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that while the state had focused on helping special education students transition out of high school before Dracut, the ruling did have an impact.

“It is something we consider when prioritizing our efforts since then,” she said. “Districts recognized the need to assess how the student would do in college or work or the community and then provide services in accordance with what they find.”

The department has developed a long list of formal and informal assessments that districts can use, as well as a “transition planning form” that requires educators to lay out a student’s “postsecondary vision” as well as all the skills they’ll need to achieve it. They must then make a plan to get to the end goal, including classes, employment and real-world experiences.

The Dracut lawsuit is probably unique, experts say. Kathleen Boundy, co-director of the Boston-based Center for Law and Education, said “there is no question” that the development of soft skills should be part of any transition plan when schools and families are trying to identify what a child needs to be self-sufficient. Beyond that, however, Boundy said a school’s obligations may depend on a given state’s standards for all children.

Karen Salomon, the Pennsylvanian whose 22-year-old son, Adam, has autism, said her son “wasn’t really ready” for life after high school when he graduated. “He needed a lot more of the social skills, and to improve his stamina to work a full day.”

Salomon said Adam’s high school program was drastically different from what was offered to students without disabilities. While he was in high school in Upper Dublin, he took part in an employability skills program for a year instead of attending classes. Salomon said the program included working at various job sites. Program officials observed him and later provided feedback and coaching.

Salomon believed the tasks he was given reflected the low expectations the school had for her son and others like him: tasks like putting pizza boxes together and cleaning the locker room at the local YMCA.

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She said that Adam learned some soft skills, like managing a schedule, but only because he had a job at a grocery store after school. He was also pulled out of class to work on communication skills as part of a small group of students who also had autism.

She thinks her son would have been more prepared to interact with co-workers and organize his time if he’d had more opportunities to interact with nondisabled peers and had practiced soft skills “in real time,” so that behavior could be corrected and practiced in real situations.

“I believe our adults with autism can do jobs, but often get into trouble on the job because of social misunderstandings,” Salomon said. “These things can be addressed, and should be targeted in the high school environment.”

“When they go from this high degree of structure [in high school] to basically no structure at all in a postsecondary environment, many of these kids crash and burn.”

Robert Schultz, principal of Upper Dublin High School, said the school “wants to ensure inclusion takes place to the maximum extent possible.” Although students may be pulled out of class for direct instruction on soft skills, he said, there are then “ongoing services to check to see how those types of taught skills are being applied in a … general education setting.”

Schultz added that the classes and services for students with disabilities are determined based on each student’s strengths and needs by a team of educators and the student’s parents; that plan is then outlined in the student’s Individualized Education Program, the federally mandated paperwork that sets out learning goals. The employability skills program that Adam participated in has been offered to a variety of students for whom it was determined that job placement work would be helpful for reaching their goals.

“We’ve had students take it who do have college as a goal, and we’ve had students take it who do not have college as a goal,” Schultz said.

However, unlike many other students whose high school experience left them unprepared for college or work, Salomon’s son will be getting the support he needs to make the transition to the real world. She found a vocational program at Millersville University just outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about an hour away from their home, that’s focused on some of the very issues she says Adam’s high school neglected. The program is geared to students with special needs.

Adam now lives in a dorm, has both an on-campus job and an off-campus job and attends classes with his peers without disabilities. His program helps him manage the day-to-day aspects of college. He wants to work in video production and is taking classes in that field.

“It’s a game changer,” Salomon said.

Special Education Glossary

IEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.

Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.

Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.

Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared in the The Denver Post, the Sun Herald and...

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling the country and developing an affinity...

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