Once a child turns 18, he or she is legally considered an adult and therefore, permitted to make his own choices. For children who have difficulty managing their emotions, expressing themselves, and executing day-to-day self-care tasks, like many on the autism spectrum, this freedom may not be a safe option.
Many parents of teens with autism are learning they are not automatically considered their child's legal guardian just because that child has a disability. If you feel guardianship is the best option for your family, you have to go through the court system to be assigned this role, which will give you the right to make decisions about issues such as your adult child's schooling, health care and living arrangements. The decision to assign a legal guardian to a person over 18 is not taken lightly and it involves paperwork, time and money.
One mother of an 18-year-old with autism in northern New Jersey says, "I just can't believe how overwhelming the process was. I spent a lot of time on the phone, gathering and copying paperwork, and talking to my lawyer and my son's court-appointed lawyer. It was a part-time job."
Though the process can be lengthy and time-consuming there are some things you can do to prepare.
Each state has its own process for filing to become a legal guardian. Be sure if you are reading information online that it comes directly from your state's official website. Most states have the step-by-step process on their website, complete with options for guardianship, forms to be printed, and necessary phone numbers.
You will need your child's medical and school records so if this paperwork isn't already organized, now is a good time to get it in order. Fill it chronologically so you can locate information quickly.
You will need to provide references- people who know you and your family well and have intimate knowledge of your child's challenges. Consider teachers, therapists, or caregivers who have worked closely with your child and your family. They will need to provide specific examples of areas of difficulty and times when your child was unable to make safe decisions, express himself effectively, or care for himself. Contact these people prior to submitting their names and contact information and ask if they are comfortable spending time discussing their experience with your child with your child's attorney.
Send all of your paperwork to your lawyers and the court offices with a delivery confirmation from the post office. These offices are handling a tremendous amount of paperwork and you want to be able to confirm that yours was delivered. Though an added cost, it will give you peace of mind.
Pursuing legal guardianship of an adult with a disability is a decision that requires much thought and care. The decision, and the ensuing process, should be handled with respect for the individual and his best interest in mind at all times.
Jennifer Cerbasi works as a special education teacher at a public school in New Jersey. As owner of The Learning Link, LLC, she works with parents in the home to support children's academic, social, emotional, and physical health through a variety of services. Jennifer utilizes her training in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis in both settings to foster children's development. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. For more information, go to www.jennifercerbasi.com.