When a student with special needs turns 21, their days are numbered until they are no longer eligible to go to school. While most parents toast to their son or daughter's first legal drink, parents of a young adult with special needs are planning for what happens on their 22nd birthday.
Like many parents who have been planning since their child was in elementary school, Sarah Donnelly, a mother of two children of autism voiced concern for where her daughter would go at 22, before she was even a teenager.
Sharing Donnelly's concern, her parents Terry and Ginny Kline researched programs and options for adults with special needs. In September 2012, they opened Connection of Friends a 501c3 organization that provides a place for social gathering and an opportunity for young adults with special needs to participate within their community.
Connection of Friends is located in the basement of Hope Presbyterian Church 1771 S. Wiesbrook Rd. in Wheaton.
At age 18, students with special needs begin a transitional period in school to prepare for vocational and life skill opportunities. However, if they don't continue use what they learned in school, they can become isolated and lose their skills, Kline said.
Donnelly said because of where her daughter is on the autism spectrum, it has taken a long time for her to acclimate socially.
“You work so hard in school to teach these kids how to acclimate to each other and to have those skills… and if you don’t reinforce that, that skill set is lost and it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Connection of Friends offers 12-week sessions with special programming that heavily emphasizes routine. The program operates five days a week under a ratio of three students to one employee, Ginny Kline said. Donnelly added Connection of Friends is not limited to a specific special need and welcomes all participants.
The program is for adults 22 and older and young adults ages 16 and older who are currently enrolled in high school or in a transitional program. Participants engage in social, life skill, volunteer and recreational activities on a daily basis, including preparation for a daily meal, volunteering in the community, art and music therapy, gardening, fitness and weekly Saturday night socials.
Ginny Kline said a pressing goal for Connection of Friends is to raise money to afford transportation for participants to go out in the community to volunteer or for other activities.
As special needs teens and adults age out of the system, Donnelly says parents struggle to schedule social activities without a structured program or part time job.
“Parents can certainly set up play dates, but it’s really hard to coordinate. It’s very difficult to keep them occupied, but you want them to be with their peers and it’s hard to coordinate that."
Terry Kline said families have appreciated the friendships that have grown out of the new organization.
“What has appealed to families has been the aspect of socialization and friendships… Just like when we were all teenagers and young adults—We wanted to have friendships and fun, and these special needs participants have not had that programming," Terry Kline said.
“Special needs parents deserve choice," Donnelly said. "We don’t have a lot of choices with programming... Everyone else has choices (for) what they want to do on a Saturday or a Tuesday evening and special needs—that population doesn’t have that choice."