According to a study published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, more than half a million children with special needs turn 18 every year. Turning 18, however, does not mean the conditions which cave these children the "special needs" label are suddenly gone; in truth, most such new adults are going to require as much or more ingoing intervention in order to navigate an ever-increasingly-complex world.
Lost in the Shuffle
The most significant obstacle for children with special needs as they 'age out' of pediatric care programs designed to help them effectively utilize the resources of public schooling is that their need for care does not decrease – but the resources available for care do. Most of the funding that supports children with special needs comes from a single law: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. That Act only provides resources for people up to 20 or 21 years of age (depending on the state law that distributes the funds.)
Not Just the Extreme Cases
This is compounded by the fact that, as a culture, Americans are firmly attached to the notion of personal responsibility. Once you're an adult, you're expected to be able to deal with the 'minor stuff' on your own. If you're not quote-unquote "legitimately" disabled – if you have, for example, "mere" ADHD or a high-functioning autism-spectrum disorder like Asperger's Syndrome – you're not supposed to need any help anymore. As any parent of a child with special needs can tell you, that's a ridiculous assumption.
More Than You Think
If half of a million children does not seem like that big of a number to you, consider that only 3.3 million kids graduated from high school in 2014 – and the dropout rate was only 7% overall, meaning we're looking just over 3.5 million kids turning 18 total. That half-million, then, represents about 1 out of every 7 children. That's a huge proportion of our population that we're essentially dropping the ball on as they age out of the single program that has made their care possible for the last 12 years of their lives.
What Comes Next?
Unfortunately, the next step is not a well-defined one. For some no-longer-children with special needs, it consists large of continuing to live with their parents and struggling to find a job or a form of continuing education that will adapt itself to their needs. According to study published in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, two years after graduating from high school, 50% of new adults diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder still had not successfully obtained any paid work experience or secondary education. Studies on other forms of special-needs individual are hard to come by, unfortunately.
One thing is certain: dealing with the half-million new special-needs adults entering our population every year is a challenge we're all going to have to – and soon. The option of ignoring the problem simply does not reasonably exist.