Starting at age 16, your child's IEP should include plans for the transition from high school to college or work. Your child will be asked what he hopes to do with his future, and it will be a good idea for you to have had some conversations about that ahead of time. If your child isn't able to think that far or make those plans, start doing some research yourself about what programs might be appropriate. If your high school has a transition coordinator, that individual can be a big help in hooking you up with information and services.
Whether your child will leave high school with a diploma or just a certificate of completion may depend on the laws in your state at the time. With the rise of standardized-test requirements for high-school graduation, some hard-working special-education students may find themselves unable to do what's needed to get that all-important piece of paper. It may be possible to get an exemption from the test, and that's something you'll want to consult with your special-education caseworker about.
U.S. special-education law specifies that your child is entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education through the school year in which he or she turns 21, or until graduation. (Summer birthdays are counted with the previous school year.) So your young person may well stay in high school while age peers graduate and move on. She may get a certificate at the age-appropriate graduation time and then remain for classes to reinforce life or work skills. Discuss these issues with your caseworker and transition coordinator, too.
While your child has the right to stay in high school until that legal age, it may not always be in his or her best interests. That's a decision that should be made based on your child's individual needs, not on what programs the school feels like providing or the space the school wants to save. Kids with developmental delays may benefit from extra time in the familiar and sheltered environment of high school, and those extra years may help with some academic catch-up. On the other hand, as colleges become more friendly to students with disabilities and work programs become more community-based, there may be real benefits to branching out.
If your child will need significant services after graduation, you'll need to be sure to be registered with the agencies in your state that provide those well before graduation time. Again, your high-school transition coordinator should be able to provide that information, or you can contact a parent center near you for some advice on where to apply.
Though the transition out of school can be a scary one, look on the bright side: No more IEP meetings!