two friends with disability in rehabilitation center, watching digital tablet

How to know when your adult child with special needs is ready to live independently

By Christy Clawson,

All parents have dreams for their kids. A good job, a loving relationship, personal success, and independence. It’s no different for those of us whose children have disabilities. It may not happen on a typical timetable, but many young adults with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs do reach a point where they’re able to move out on their own.

How do you know when – or if – your son or daughter will be ready to live independently? How can you make sure he or she has enough support to succeed? Managing your child’s transition to adulthood can be nerve-wracking, but there are some milestones and strategies that can help you make the right choices at the right time.

Signs your child is ready

Does your child talk about wanting to live in an apartment or similar environment? That’s a great place to start. Your child should be involved in discussions about the future, and it’s important to ask how he or she feels about independence. Have your son or daughter consider some questions.

  • Why do I want to live alone?
  • What am I excited about and worried about?
  • What support do I need to live on my own?
  • Do I want to live in a large group setting, small group, or solo?
  • Do I want organized activities and shared meals?
  • Is there a friend I want to live with?

How these questions are answered will provide some clues as to what type of housing might be appropriate.

Special needs adults living Independently

Like all goals, living independently is something to work toward. Before it can happen, you and your child should focus on developing the skills it will take to succeed. It can be hard as a parent to let go after years of managing your child’s affairs, but turning over responsibilities in small increments will help prepare your child to be more independent. Before you start looking for a place in earnest, make sure he or she can do the following:

  • Hold a job. It doesn’t matter if it’s a part-time or full-time job. What matters is that your child has a schedule and responsibilities, and is able to perform them reliably.
  • Manage money. Handling small sums of cash, paying for sundries, and making change are all important life skills. You don’t want your child to be taken advantage of or have to depend on others to provide the right change.
  • Make simple meals. Your child doesn’t need to become a chef, but he or she should be able to pour a bowl of cereal, make a sandwich or salad, heat soup, or microwave a frozen dinner.
  • Navigate transportation. Whether it’s walking, biking, or taking a taxi, bus, subway, ride-share service, or shuttle for the disabled, it’s important for your child to be able to get to and from work independently and run simple errands.
  • Understand consent and personal boundaries. People with disabilities are at greater risk of abuse and mistreatment. If your child is going to be living away from home, be sure to discuss what to do if someone makes them feel uncomfortable or crosses a personal boundary.

Ways to support your adult child

If your child is ready to live independently, but still needs a little support, there are several options to consider to ensure your child moves into a good situation where he or she will be happy.

  • Find a roommate: A roommate is a great solution—your child won’t be totally alone, yet will have a high level of autonomy as he or she learns how to live independently.
  • Schedule weekly dinners together: Weekly family get-togethers are a nice way to stay connected and routinely touch base to make sure your child is doing OK on his or her own.
  • Set up automated bill pay: Living on one’s own, especially for the first time, can be overwhelming. Automated bill pay removes some of the burdens that come with acclimating to independence.
  • Pick a place close to home: Finding your child a place that is geographically close to you offers independence while keeping a safety net in case assistance is needed.

Be prepared, when 18 arrives, your child may become adamant in making his or her own life decisions. Legally, he or she can do this, including housing. If your child truly isn’t ready, you may want to pursue guardianship.

There are different levels of control you can legally pursue without taking over your child’s life, allowing some independence with you maintaining decision-making where help may be needed (i.e. financial, medical or education).

However, guardianship isn’t a decision to make lightly because you don’t want to take away your child’s independence in areas where he or she is capable.


As your child moves towards independence, it’s important you both understand your child’s rights when it comes to fair housing.

  • Understand renters’ rights: Under federal law, landlords cannot discriminate against a renter based on disability or impairment.
  • Set up identity theft protection: ID theft is a huge risk for anyone these days but if your child gets overwhelmed or confused easily, this is a protective layer you can add to monitor any actions that may signal your child’s identity was compromised.
  • Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors: Be sure both are installed and working correctly. Set up a schedule for your child to check batteries, or let your child know you can do it for them. It’s also a good idea to have a first aid kit and fire extinguisher handy and make sure your child knows how to use them.
  • Consider video security: Technology today has come far and there are many options on the market to increase home security and deter criminals.

By considering potential trouble areas and putting solutions in place, you can eliminate many problems before they happen.

Options for greater independence at home

According to statistics, nearly 70 percent of adult children with special needs remain at home with their families. Even if unable to live independently, there are ways you can support your child on the road to independence with a safety umbrella intact.

If your child remains at home, you can offer increased responsibility around the house to help prepare for the future. For instance, have your child prepare meals, do laundry, go shopping or pay bills. If possible, offer a space with a separate entrance or a room with a private bath (i.e. downstairs to give an “apartment” feel) to offer more autonomy.

Additionally, make an effort to get your child out in the community. This way your son or daughter can further develop an ability to socialize, make friends or know how (or where) to seek assistance if needed. Depending on the nature of your child’s special needs, socialization may be a barrier and you can help your son or daughter become more comfortable in the community. Be sure to start sooner than later, no age is too early!

Knowing when your adult child with special needs is ready to live independently

During childhood, independence seems far away and, when the time arrives, it can be pretty scary for parents, especially if unprepared. However, armed with information and knowing your options will help you to be better prepared to help your child make the best decisions of when and how to live independently.

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