U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez speaks to clients at Bergen PRIDE during a stop to announce new legislation that would channel resources towards special needs adults who age out of the education system. (S.P. Sullivan/NJ.com)
PARAMUS — U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez on Monday announced new legislation that would look to answer a question the families of those with special needs know all too well: What happens when they age out of the education system?
Standing alongside advocates from Autism Speaks, Menendez pushed a measure called the Assistance in Gaining Experience, Independence and Navigation (AGE-IN) act, which would allocate resources toward the development of a training program that would help young adults with special needs transition into adulthood.
“While we must continue to meet the developmental needs of these children while they are young, we simply cannot dismiss them when they reach adulthood,” Menendez said. “It’s not only inhumane, it’s poor public policy.”
Children with special needs often rely on state and federal programs offered through the education system, but are no longer eligible for many crucial benefits once they hit 21.
The senator introduced the bill at the P.R.I.D.E. Center in Paramus, which offers a self-directed learning program from the ECLC of New Jersey. Organizations like P.R.I.D.E. are cropping up around New Jersey to fill in the gap left when they age out, but advocates say more attention needs to be paid to smoothing out the transition.
“It feels like the popular image of autism for so long in our society has been focused on children with autism,” Kerry Magro, an advocate with Autism Speaks who is on the autism spectrum, said Monday. “These kids are growing up, and we have to be ready for them once they reach adulthood.”
The bill would allocate federal dollars to research how to address the needs of special needs students who age out of the system, a question that’s vexed families and educators who see support structures cut short once students turn 21.
In Bergen County, an ad hoc committee of local officials, advocates and care providers have been meeting to discuss “public-private” solutions to answering that question here, Freeholder Tracy Silna Zur, a member of the committee, said.
“We really now have a diverse group looking at this from every angle, from housing to transportation to workforce developments,” she said.
Menendez said Monday the new legislation could provide “a clearer path in what is largely uncharted territory.” Among the resources it would provide are so-called “transition navigators” — experts who would be able to help special needs adults and their families connect with organizations and programs that can assist in their transition.
Zur said it’s a need that’s been expressed over and over again in the committee’s meetings.
“One of the things that keeps coming up is the idea of having someone who works with the sole purpose of helping families navigate the transition period after the school bus stops at 21,” she said. “For there to be federal funding for it would be tremendous.”