As a parent, securing the financial future of your child with autism is an important concern. Public benefit programs can help your child pay for the things they need by providing financial assistance, nutritional support, and healthcare after high school.
However, securing these benefits can be extremely difficult. Eligibility requirements are complex and confusing, vary from state to state, involve long waiting lists, and can change once your child moves or reaches their eighteenth birthday. You may also fear that they will lose benefits if they become employed.
As your child approaches their eighteenth birthday, it is important to understand which public benefits your child might be eligible for and how to apply for them. Below are some strategies that can provide a starting point.
- Map your child’s financial needs. Identifying your child’s long-term financial needs can help you to identify the types of support that are most important and provide a framework for discussion during transition meetings. A common starting point is to list all your monthly and disability-related expenses. Then, map out all services and supports your child is currently receiving and who provides funding for that support. Flag any sources of support that are expected to change after high school.
- Learn about different benefit programs. A wide range of federal and state programs offer financial services and supports for adults. Some of the most common programs include:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI): This federally funded program provides cash benefits to eligible children and adults with disabilities to help meet their basic needs. Eligible individuals must have an impairment that limits their ability to earn income from work. (https://www.ssa.gov/benefits/ssi/)
- Medicaid: Low-income children, pregnant women, parents, seniors, and individuals with disabilities can receive health coverage through this program. (https://www.medicaid.gov/)
- Medicaid Home and Community Based Services (HCBS): Long-term services and supports to people with disabilities in home and community settings are available through HCBS.
- Section 8 Federal Housing Vouchers: These vouchers subsidize rent for adults with disabilities who can live independently.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Eligible low-income individuals and families can receive food vouchers and nutritional assistance through SNAP.
- Determine if your child is eligible for benefits. It is important to draw from several sources of information to help you understand how to apply for benefits. You can:
- Actively seek information through government websites. In addition to the websites listed above, Benefits.gov includes information on a wide range of programs and includes a questionnaire to help determine your eligibility for benefits.
- Contact call centers or local agencies. These can include your county’s Office of Public Assistance or Social Services, local Social Security Administration (SSA) office and your state’s agency for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. If your child receives help through a government healthcare assistance or social service program, you can also contact your case manager to determine which options might be available for your child.
- Consider using a benefits planner. A benefits planner can help to navigate the public benefits service system by interpreting complex policy rules and determining whether your child might be eligible for benefits. Benefits planning can also clearly articulate how employment will impact your child’s benefits once they receive them. One-Stop Centers or community organizations, like independent living centers, can assist you.
- Prepare necessary documentation ahead of time. Eligibility for benefits can be based on your child’s income, disability, or both. Gathering the necessary documentation ahead of time can help speed up the application process, including:
- Financial documents. Many public benefits programs enforce income and asset restrictions. Therefore, calculating your income and total assets ahead of time can help to ensure eligibility for benefits. Possible documents can include pay stubs, disability-related expenses, and tax returns. Note that financial eligibility is based on the child’s financial resources (and not the parent’s) after they turn 18.
- Disability documents. It can be helpful to obtain a finding of disability from a doctor or healthcare professional. Additional information can include doctors’ notes, medical tests, and health history. In some instances, you will need work-related information (like employment history) to demonstrate that your child’s impairment impacts their ability to work for pay. Letters from educators and service providers detailing how your child’s autism impacts employment can be especially useful. For this reason, it is important to begin this process during transition planning.
Helping your child access public benefits can play a pivotal role in securing their financial future. To get the best results, it is important that parents begin to understand which benefits are available and how to apply for them while their child is still in high school. Integrating financial planning early in the transition process can help to ensure that your child’s basic needs are met once they leave secondary education.
Kristy Anderson is a research associate for the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and current PhD student at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Social Welfare. Her research focuses primarily on social policies and the financial security of children and adults on the autism spectrum. Kristy is an OAR-funded researcher and has authored peer-reviewed publications on a wide range of topics including housing transitions, service use, and youth expectations.