Ryan Horrigan: A Transition Success Story

The Arc of Massachusetts will be publishing a series of Transition or Turning 22 articles in our newsletter and on our website, over a period of several months. Our goal is to help adults and families make the best of the transition from special education to adult life. These stories and lessons may be applied to older adults as well. A successful transition requires planning, understanding your non-negotiables, an awareness of what’s possible at the moment, and the ability to negotiate.

Ryan Horrigan’s story gives us a glimpse into all of these areas and more. We’ll be sharing some of the preparation that Ryan did, coordinated by his mother, Nancy Norman Horrigan, and supported by both her and Ryan’s father, Mark Horrigan. This story is in two parts: first, a glimpse into Ryan’s preparation through childhood; and then, his transition story.

Initially, Nancy, Mark, and the professionals involved weren’t sure what to make of Ryan’s development. He was hyperactive, and they were aware he had some type of delay, but it wasn’t clear to what extent. Ryan was later diagnosed on the autism spectrum, but he is also DDS eligible through the diagnosis of an intellectual disability. A significant difference for Ryan, however, was “his desire for social connections,” as Nancy states.  Ryan wanted to be accepted by his peers and others.

Nancy not only learned as much as possible about Ryan’s condition as he was growing up, but she also enrolled him in programs that were offered, including those at Northeast Arc. In the public schools in Marblehead, she wanted him enrolled in the full curriculum. For example, in high school, he participated in cross country and track. But in his younger days, the road to success in the public school was difficult. In fact, Nancy notes that as well as things have turned out, the road for Ryan was sometimes bumpy, with setbacks. But no one in the family gave up—including Ryan.

Between the ages of five and ten, Nancy enrolled Ryan in the KidsRPeople charter school in the heart of Boston. The school had a diverse group of students, computers were available for all the children, and they had an auditory processing program. Ryan learned that he wasn’t the only “different” kid. He may have autism, but other children had tough family situations or other complications. The combination of diversity and acceptance worked to help him leave with a strong sense of self. His parents’ acceptance of him has also provided a strong message for him as a child or teen. He was accepted just as he was at this school by all his classmates, and, as a result, when he left the school he had the same expectation in Marblehead.

Nancy worked with an educational consultant who suggested that Ryan return to Marblehead at age ten. She agreed, but had fears about how Ryan would be accepted there and what the impact on him would be. Nancy and Mark kept Ryan active in extracurricular activities like the Special Olympics and special afternoon or weekend programs during this period.

The family also used behavioral health services at Northeast Arc. In high school, someone worked with him toward achieving independent goals in the community.  As Nancy explains, “for example, crossing the street safely, Ryan needed help with his excitability and self-regulation.” He would “go to the coffee shop to order a snack and learn how to react with the counter person; go to the bank and negotiate with the teller; and do the same with going to the grocery store.” A therapist even thought of taking him to yard sales.  She explained to Nancy that yard sales provided much interaction with different people and negotiation. In addition, they worked with him to learn how to stay at home for periods and cook his own meals.

Overnight camp was another life-skills builder for Ryan. He went for six years, beginning with one week. Eventually, he grew comfortable being away and having to accept changes in his routine or schedule. As he became an adolescent, Ryan also became interested in girls and didn’t hesitate to ask the prettiest ones out on a date. His activity in track kept him connected to other high school teens. This became something that has been a consistent social outlet in his adult years.

Again, Nancy notes: “there were bumps in the road, and all the steps Ryan took required adjustments from him.  Sometimes he would show the difficulties in his mood or in not focusing on a task.  But he didn’t give up!”

At age 18, Ryan took the next step beyond camping by going to Israel through Birthright (YACHAD). The group accepted Ryan completely, and he went again when he was 19 years old. He now participates with YACHAD and has spent a month in Israel with that group two summers in a row. The camping and the trips to Israel are experiences that helped him grow. They built resilience in him since some of the trips were unpredictable. The changes in place and friends also helped him to learn to adjust to new situations.

At age 19, Ryan entered SOAR, an adult preparation program run by the North Shore Education Consortium at Salem State University. Since Ryan is challenged with staying on task and focusing, Nancy hoped that the SOAR program would provide him with the support he needed. The school provided Ryan with a range of adult living skills, vocational opportunities in volunteer activities, and some overnight experiences. The curriculum was specially designed for transition.

Ryan was able “pass” his MCAS and he received a diploma. Nancy is not sure how that happened, but both Ryan and his parents are happy that he could be part of the graduation process. Nancy kept stressing that, when Ryan was younger, there were many hiccups on the road for Ryan and the family. Some experiences were tough, but they didn’t allow themselves to become discouraged. They also took part in fun activities as a family, so everything wasn’t only focused on growth and learning.  Yes, there were setbacks on the journey, but as Nancy explained, “What are you going to do?  Regardless of how exhausted you are, you need to get energized.” Staying connected with resources, including the Northeast Arc, helped.

Crossing the Divide to Adult Services

Ryan’s story is remarkable because of the smooth nature of his transition to adult services. His story continues to unfold as Ryan moved into his new home only a few months ago.

Nancy said that she had no idea that this would be the outcome several months ago.  Despite the planning, preparation and advice, Ryan and his parents weren’t sure if there would be a housing option in the near future. When Ryan turned 22 in December 2016, he continued on at SOAR for several months, something that not all families can do. The family felt that the additional preparation at the program where he was learning would be positive. This also avoided any rushed decision-making.

Ryan did not need a 24/7 setting, but he did need support with some monitoring at any new home. Northeast Arc had been renovating a home to assist young adults with ASD since early 2016. The model included a part time case manager and social worker; and those eligible would require 20 hours or less in services per week.

Nancy met with Joanne Wahl, Director of Residential Services at Northeast Arc, to understand what she would need from DDS and learn more about the program.  Nancy decided not to explore self-directed services with Ryan for a simple reason. She learned that the funding for such services is not in the same range as using a more traditional option (The Arc will cover this issue in a future article).

Ryan says, “I’m a 22-year old man. I have autism, but it doesn’t define me.  I want to have the same experiences as others do.”

The house that Ryan moved into is a triplex with the potential of housing six people in the future. Each person would have only one housemate. In February 2017, Nancy learned that Ryan was to be funded in this house. Ryan, Nancy, and Mark were thrilled. They didn’t expect an outcome so soon, but felt this house suited Ryan well.

In May 2017, Ryan began to do sleep overs at the apartment. Life coaches were still to be hired. He moved into the home in June 2017. Ryan has had a great experience from day one in his apartment. It has been such a change for them as a family and on some level, Nancy explained, “it’s amazing nothing has happened.” Of course, she means that no mishap has taken place.

Her and Mark’s roles have changed greatly. She noted that “house staff are pushing hard for Ryan to do more on his own. He is doing more than we thought possible, such as getting the meds at CVS, and he is learning to track and order his prescriptions when they run out.”

Ryan gets 18 hours of support per week, which includes helping him to get going in the mornings. Additionally, three nights per week he is assisted in grocery shopping, planning meals, and accessing the community. His interest in running allows him to be part of a running community in Salem and he competes almost weekly in 5 and 10K races with practices during the week. Ryan has even completed one half-marathon. His father, Mark, is shocked that Ryan is doing as well as he is.

Ryan presently attends Triangle in Malden for vocational training and opportunities. He works at U-Haul 2 days a week and is being exposed to vocational building and community activities. Ryan has also benefited from having mentors at Endicott College. Recently, DDS approved funding for Ryan through “You’re With Us,” an organization that promotes inclusiveness. They will help to develop an internship for him at Endicott, and possibly allow him to attend gym classes at the college. Ryan has also participated in a Leadership Program at Waypoint Adventure. Nancy’s experience with the DDS office in Beverly has been positive.  The “caseworker is supportive and I’ve met like-minded and fair-minded people,” she said.

In addition to all of the above, Ryan’s family does an activity with him every weekend. He uses The Ride to get to work or volunteer and uses LYFT for other purposes. “We’re continuing to learn about Ryan too,” said Nancy. “You find out more and more what our kids are capable of.  I never would have imagined Ryan would be where he is.”

There are still goals ahead for Ryan. For example, he’d like to have other jobs and more close friends. But he is on the road for further success and achievements. One day, he may need less support than what he currently receives. But for now, Ryan and his parents are reaping the rewards of hard work and planning, all while looking ahead to a fulfilling future with support from DDS and a network of community support.

To learn more about planning ahead for transition, see our transition page which includes a downloadable fact sheet on the topic: http://thearcofmass.org/resources/transition/


  1. Great Story!!!!

  2. This is such an inspiring story! It gives me a lot of hope for my now 18 y/o son on the Spectrum. Thank you for sharing!!!!

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