Breaking Ground 111 - 5 Ways to Help Your Child Get Ready for Adulthood

by Lesley Guilaran
family photo of Guilaran family with their 3 sons, Lesley and her husband
The Guilaran family, left to right: Fonsie, Xiao Yu, Lesley, Angel and Aden.

Lesley Guilaran is a former Governor-appointed member of our Council. She is also the parent of children with disabilities, a long-time special education teacher, and now a school district transition coordinator. She shared with us her thoughts about what makes for a successful transition to adulthood for young people with disabilities, based on her personal and professional experience.

1. Practice, practice, practice.

Learning to make decisions takes practice for all of us. Getting our kids with disabilities ready for adulthood can’t start when they are about to turn 18. As early as you can help them practice making decisions, the better! That might look a little different for our kids with disabilities, but they can build these skills over time. We started practicing decision-making with our son, Angel, from a very early age. Some things that help Angel make decisions:

  • Offering 2 or 3 options. Too many options can be overwhelming. Narrowing it down to a few choices helps Angel feel ready to choose.  
  • Using plain language. We explain decisions in simple, concrete terms. We might give a lot of examples or write a list of pros and cons. Once we know he understands his options, we respect his choice.

2. Talk about the future.

We talk about jobs a lot in our house to create that expectation. When Angel asks, “When can I have a phone?” the answer is, “When you have a job!” We tie lots of consequences and our narrative about adulthood to having a job. Angel knows that learning skills will help him be able to work. And he knows work is the door to more independence – and being able to buy things he wants!

3. Do the front-end work.

Teaching our kids with disabilities how to be independent can take a lot more work than it does for kids without disabilities. Sometimes as parents, we do FOR instead of allowing our kids to do for themselves. It’s easier, and we’re tired! But our kids can do so much more than we give them credit for. Practice independence and self-care skills as early as possible.

We’ve learned some strategies that help build independence at home.

  • Give prompts, then fade them out. Angel struggled with choosing appropriate clothing. He would get overwhelmed and couldn’t pick out what he needed on his own. So, I made him a list of steps, with pictures: pants, shirt, socks, etc. Now, he can do it by himself. He might ask questions for reassurance, but over time, his independence is increasing, and he needs less support. We’ve done this in many areas. When Angel was learning to take a shower, we put visual steps in plastic in the shower for him to follow. Now, he doesn’t need the visual.
  • Use your child’s natural interests. Angel started cooking at age 11 or 12. It made us nervous at first, but now he browns our meat. He’s my sous chef! He’s started learning all the spices and how to follow a recipe. It helps him with understanding how to read instructions, how to measure ingredients… He also helps me with cross-stitching and sewing. When he was younger, we got monthly TinkerCrate engineering kits. He learned to follow the instructions and put something together on his own.
  • Teach siblings and other family members to allow maximum independence. Our son Xiao Yu sometimes assumes a caregiver role. We have to tell him, “Hey, let Angel do it himself. Let him practice independence.”
  • Teach money management. Allow kids to use their allotted money on whatever they want. We’re still working on money skills. But Angel knows that he has a set amount of money that he can spend however he wants. A while back, he had a toy phone he wanted to buy. We talked about how long he would need to save to buy it. He knew when that day came, and he asked to go get that phone. Parents might want to tell their kids, “No, you don’t want to waste your money on that.” But making those mistakes is how our kids learn.

Believe me, I know this takes time and can be hard. But the earlier you can start to practice those skills, and create the expectations, the easier it makes this longer-term. We hold Angel to high expectations, and he rises to those.

4. Build job-related skills.

Work is good for everyone’s soul and is a critical part of all of our lives, whatever our job looks like.  Since students with disabilities can stay in school until they are 22, more and more school districts are moving to a transition model. With that model, once students graduate, they can attend a transition program to help them learn job skills. Take full advantage of those programs!

We also focus on job-related skills at home. I use a website called The Autism Helper. It focuses on learning work tasks. I print out the tasks, and Angel does them. It has really made me start thinking about, “What tasks can he do?” If he CAN do them, he should be doing them.

Angel sorts silverware, does his own laundry, and folds our towels. Those are tasks that relate to a lot of jobs. One of the Project SEARCH rotations focuses on laundry. (See more on that below!) We worked over the summer on doing consecutive tasks – back-to-back tasks without needing guidance. Angel finished three tasks without needing help. These are all skills that tie directly to employment.

5. Help your child self-regulate.  

Teach self-control, self-regulation, and tools for de-escalation. Temple Grandin talks a lot about this, about her struggles with her temper. We tie it back to a job. I’ll say to Angel, “What would happen if you said that to a boss?” And he’ll say, “I’d get fired.” We talk a lot about self-control. He’s learned tools to calm himself down.

5 Programs and Resources to Know About

  1. TN Center for Decision-Making Support – Provides easy to understand, accurate information about all decision-making support options for people with disabilities, all in one place. The Center can help families have important conversations and find the right support options as a child turns 18 and becomes a legal adult. You can learn about supported decision-making, powers of attorney, conservatorship, and other options. Visit
  2. Project SEARCH – A program available in many school districts across the state. It provides students with an internship year at a worksite in order to help them gain work skills. Many Project SEARCH graduates go on to permanent employment after the internship is over. Bonus fact: The Council helped launch the first Project SEARCH site in Tennessee more than 15 years ago! (Read more: Breaking Ground 97 - Project SEARCH: A path to the future ( For more information, ask your IEP coordinator or email
  3. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) – Provides a variety of services to people with disabilities to help them be ready for employment.  Some of their services include: 
    • Counseling and guidance
    • Training
    • Transition services from school to work
    • Job Placement
    • Personal Care Assistance
    • Rehabilitation Technology Services
    • Independent Living Services
    • Supported Employment
    • Services for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing and for people who are blind/visually impaired
    • It is really important to enroll your child in VR (sometimes referred to as Voc Rehab) to obtain these services.  Visit
    • Another VR program is called Pre-Employment and Transition Services (Pre-ETS). This is a school-based program for students with disabilities between ages 14-22. The program prepares students for the transition from high school to a career path, which could include post-secondary education, training, or employment. Ask your school about how to participate! 
  4. Employment and Community First (ECF) CHOICES – Tennessee’s program for home and community-based services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These services through TennCare can help with employment and everyday living in the community, including support from paid staff.  Visit
  5. Transition is Tennessee’s online home for training and resources on preparing students with disabilities for life after high school. Their goal is to improve transition outcomes for youth and young adults with disabilities by sharing research-based practices and policies. The website is organized into different sections for educators, for providers, and for students. Each includes free video-based lessons, ideas, resources, and more.