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Autism in Adulthood-Employment
In the coming years a “tidal wave” of young adults on the autism spectrum will become adults who will require special services, housing, and employment.1 According to the October 2012 employment statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for individuals with a disability is 12.9% compared to 7.3% for persons with no disability.2 The challenges of finding it, obtaining the job, and then keeping the job are magnified for individuals on the autism spectrum. As a parent, prepping your young adult with autism for independent life long before he/she reaches adult age is critical. You can assist your child with this by taking advantage of transition supports, developing interests in potential careers, and teaching them to strategically utilize self-advocacy and disclosure to their benefit as a means of getting and maintaining employment.
Finding employment is a necessary step towards achieving and maintaining rewarding independence for adults on the autism spectrum. To help ensure this, young adults on the autism spectrum are required to have transition planning services written into their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Transition planning services must be a part of the IEP process when the child with a disability reaches age 16, but it is ideal to have them become a part of the IEP process when they start high school (around age 14).3 According to Wrightslaw,4 transition services are:
- Designed to improve the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities. This includes post-secondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, continuing adult education, adult services, independent living and community education
- Based on the child’s individual needs, which include assessing the child’s strengths and weaknesses, preferences, and interests
- Include instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, when appropriate, the acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation.
As a parent/guardian, you and your child must make the most of transition services associated with employment because “there are no federally mandated programs or services for individuals once they leave the school system.”5 It is never too early to begin the process that will ideally lead to their employment by simply exposing them to the wide variety of careers based on their personal interests. Parents can help gauge their child’s interests with the helpful Interests Quiz from Do2Learn.com. Parents should also work with their child’s transition team to build core deficits that may impede his/her ability to work independently while the child is still in high school or younger.
The task of finding a job starts after an individual has identified a career that is best suited for them based on their interests. Finding a job can present challenges for an individual on the autism spectrum if they have communication or social difficulties that visibly set them apart from other candidates. Employers can be hesitant to hire individuals on the autism spectrum for several reasons, such as: employers may be uncomfortable discussing performance issues, job expectations, and the individual’s potential limitations.6 Reasonable accommodations such as dim lighting or job coaches, which are granted to individuals with autism in the workplace, may seem problematic for potential employers when they could just as easily hire somebody who doesn’t require such assistance. In one instance, an employer felt that “having an individual on the spectrum with other staff at the agency might undermine their professionalism.”7 Finally, employers may be discouraged to hire somebody on the autism spectrum because of potential legal ramifications that could stem from not following the regulations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Of course, under “the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is illegal to discriminate against qualified job applicants because they have autism, but experts say widespread discrimination continues.”6
For these reasons, it is important for young adults with autism entering the workforce to be prepared as best as possible for the rigors of the “real world”. Parents can enroll their child in vocational assessment activities through “job sampling” that allow him/her to get real-world experience in actual places of employment. If possible, parents and professionals should help train and practice interview skills with their child.5 It is also important for individuals with ASD to be familiar with self-advocacy and disclosure skills, not only for reasons of employment, but to also help with post-secondary education and social situations as well. Possessing disclosure techniques allows an individual on the autism spectrum to request that their employer makes a certain accommodation, such as written instructions for various tasks. The teaching of self-advocacy and disclosure practices should be undertaken by the IEP team as part of an individual’s overall education to help prepare him/her for becoming a more effective citizen.8
There is a wide range of careers available to individuals on the autism spectrum. The results from the Interests Quiz (See above) should yield a number of results that range from simple to skilled jobs that are suited for individuals with ASD. According to the “Employment and Other Options” section of Autism Speaks’ Transition Toolkit,9 employment opportunities for individuals on the autism spectrum fall into the following categories, which are listed from least to most supportive:
- Competitive Employment- Individuals involved with this type of full-time or part-time employment with market wages and responsibilities are considered to be a in a competitive environment. Generally, these jobs are without long-term supports for the employee and tend to be suitable for fairly skilled individuals. These jobs include waiting tables, computer programming, teaching, etc.
- Supported Employment- This type of employment occurs in a competitive atmosphere that offers support services for an individual on the autism spectrum as they work alongside neurotypical individuals. These supports are available for individuals for as long as they hold the job, however the amount of support may lessen as the individual becomes more comfortable with his/her job. Examples of these types of occupations generally include work at universities, hotels, office buildings, and small businesses. Although supported employment can be funded through state developmental disabilities or vocational rehabilitation agencies, the families of the individuals in need of supports must strongly advocate the following:
-Supported employment, by definition and statute, is intended for people with severe disabilities;
-Persons with ASD can work if given the proper support, training, and attention to job match characteristics.9
- Secured or Segregated Employment- This area of employment is usually supported by federal and/or state funds and involves individuals with disabilities (not necessarily autism specific) working in a “self-contained unit” that is not integrated with workers without disabilities. The typical work tasks include collating, assembling, paper shredding, or packaging. These type of programs have been met with some criticism because they are viewed as not encouraging independence in the community at large.
- Customized Employment- This type of employment is much like supported employment in that the employer must take the time to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and necessary supports of the individual in order to find creative ways to maximize the employee’s full potential. Generally, the job and job description are tailored to the employee’s unique abilities and needs.
- Self-Employment- People involved in this type of employment lend their strengths and interests to a product or service that can yield an income.
- Sheltered Employment- This employment is carried out through programs in a protected environment that provide training and services that will assist young adults with autism in developing various life skills.
The type of employment individuals ASD choose will vary based on their specific skills and abilities. Some may feel more comfortable working with like individuals on the autism spectrum, while others are ready for the hustle and bustle of a competitive environment.
Due to the relatively recent addition of Asperger’s Disorder, more commonly known as Asperger’s Syndrome, to the DSM-IV (added 1994), there could be any number of adults who have the disorder, but have failed to receive the proper diagnosis.10 For some individuals it may be advantageous to actively seek out a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Undergoing an assessment for Asperger’s Syndrome can be a tough decision, but it can have a profound impact on the way individuals on the autism spectrum view themselves and others. According to the Asperger's Association of New England (AANE), seeking a diagnosis on the autism spectrum can be beneficial at any age. Having confirmation of diagnosis can allow these individuals to renew relationships, plan a career suited to their interests, and to customize their personal and professional environment to the strengths and challenges of living with Asperger’s Syndrome.11 With an official diagnosis, individuals can make reasonable accommodation requests at work that will comply with their strengths and weaknesses. These can help individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome to more easily function and adapt in the workplace.
Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit and Life Journey Through Autism: An Educator’s Guide sponsored by Danya International, Inc. and the Organization for Autism Research (OAR) are great sources for further information about employment for adults on the autism spectrum.