Supporting Branden Through the Self Determination Program (SDP)

Written by Helen Chou, FCSN Voices Parent Reporter

Graphics by Kristina Guo, FCSN Voices Graphic Artist

Two years ago, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) introduced the Self-Determination Program (SDP) through Person-Centered Planning at an open house. Susan and Yong were quick to sign up for the pilot program, as their son Branden was in the last year of the Young Adult Program at the time. Although Branden was able to keep up with his academic workload, his autism manifested as extreme shyness that prevented him from communicating with others. Susan realized that if Branden were to graduate and enter the real world, he would struggle to survive on his own. In light of this urgent situation, Susan and Yong saw that the Person Centered approach of the new SDP could help Branden achieve independence and become an active member of the community. With that goal in mind, they designed a unique program and coordinated the necessary services to support Branden on his path to success.

Ordering coffee for brother
Helping brother build desk


SDP Journey

At the Van Gough exhibition

What did Branden’s plan look like?

Yong and Susan began by creating Branden’s Person Centered Planning (PCP) which identified his strengths and goals, and areas where he required support. His plan highlighted two areas of support: employment training and community integration. To obtain a job, Branden needed further training in technical skills and assistance in socialization, safety, self-advocacy, mobility, financial management, and independent living. With a clear understanding of the necessary components, they initiated the Self-Determination Program and established a support system to help Branden towards his goal of living independently.

Building Gandam as a favorite past time
Performing at a piano recital

Employment Training

Branden spent four years at a young adult program, and at the same time attending classes at Ohlone College. He was admitted to the  College to Career (C2C) Program at the College of Alameda after the young adult program. The program is designed for individuals with special needs and emphasizes areas of job growth. Funded by the Department of Rehabilitation, the program helps students navigate college life and find permanent, paid employment. Although Branden was academically qualified for college, he lacked interpersonal skills needed to communicate effectively with staff and teachers and to navigate college life. To succeed in this new environment, Branden required a personal assistant who could help him with various tasks, including communication with school staff, meeting class expectations, and transportation to and from school. Susan, who had been providing these services for years, applied to become Branden’s personal assistant and was approved to be his service provider to support him in his training and community integration.

Learning how to cook
Washing brother’s car

Community Integration

One of Branden’s main aspirations was to engage in activities in his community independently. However, given his struggles with social interactions and reluctance to speak to people, this required a creative approach. Susan, a long time art teacher, arranged for other children to attend art classes with Branden, providing him with the opportunity to participate in an activity alongside typical peers in his community. Additionally, as the principal of a local Chinese school, Susan gave Branden numerous opportunities to assist other teachers by distributing papers and running errands. Having a network of friends who understood Branden’s strengths and weaknesses was critical in ensuring that they could safely support him. Often, Susan’s friends would take Branden shopping to give him chances to interact with people other than his parents. Bit by bit, Branden made progress towards his goal, going from being too afraid to pay for something at a store to ordering his own meal at a restaurant.

Getting TA certificate for North Valley
Chinese School
Participating in Taiko Time with Wadaiko Newark at Lake Elizabeth

Work in Progress

Susan and Yong are working tirelessly towards their ultimate goal of helping Branden live independently. Although there are still many goals that they are working on, they are taking it one step at a time with the assistance of Branden’s circle of support. By putting the pieces together slowly but surely, they hope that one day Branden will be a fully integrated member of his community.

Yong Lee is an Independent Facilitator who assists special needs families to put together a Self-Determination Program (SDP). Drawing from his own experience, he offers the following advice for families who are embarking on this journey:

How can I get started if I want to implement SDP?

YL: A successful SDP is dependent on how well defined an individual’s Person-Centered Planning (PCP) is. The PCP articulates the unique strengths and goals of the individual, and is the foundation of what services are needed in order to support the individual to reach those goals. Therefore the first step is to work with an Independent Facilitator to define a clear PCP that is unique for the individual. 

How is SDP different from the traditional model of relying on Regional Center’s Case Manager to coordinate for services? 

YL: Compared to the traditional model where the Regional Center Case Managers advise clients on the available services, SDP allows guardians for more creative freedom in selecting services and allocating resources. In the traditional model,  many clients were unable to receive services they qualify for because they could not find service providers willing to work at low service rates. The SDP model provides a solution by allowing guardians to design a spending plan that outlines how to allocate the budget for different services required to support the client’s unique needs. This gives guardians more flexibility to select suitable service providers and negotiate a fee structure that works for their unique situation. However, the tradeoff is that the guardians need to be more resourceful and put in more work in the beginning to set up the circle of support, vendorize service providers, and ensure that the services are suitable for the client.

Can parents be SDP vendors? 

YL: There is a misconception that parents are not allowed to be service providers under the SDP because Regional Centers require that the budget must go through a Financial Management Service (FMS) directly to the vendor, so as to not go through the parent’s bank account. However, this is not entirely true. Although payment is distributed through the FMS, parents can still be service providers as long as they meet the Regional Center’s qualifications to provide the service to their child and go through the vetting process. So, parents can still receive SDP payments as their child’s vendor.

How can I maximize my SDP budget? 

YL: Another common misconception about SDP is that it operates as a Regional Center-funded bank account, allowing clients to charge anything and everything to their SDP account. However, this is not the case. SDP is based on the PCP of the client, and all requested services must fit within approved categories1 designated by the Regional Center. Moreover, clients must use generic resources2 first. Take behavioral therapy for example, if the client is a school-age child, they must use the school resources or their parent’s insurance to pay for the services first. Only if the generic resource is unable to cover the requested service can the service be claimed. 


1 For a list and description of services that are approved in the Self-Determination Program, please view:

2 See definition of DSS generic resources, see

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