Learning Work Skills While Working | Organization for Autism Research

Research Review

With thousands of teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) moving into adulthood each year, employment has become one of the biggest issues in the autism community. Meaningful work and wages are core components of a productive adulthood.

As far back as 2007, a two-year OAR-funded study highlighted the critical importance of jobs and work skills. “Efficacy of Community-based Instruction and Supported Employment on the Competitive Employment Outcomes of Transition-age Youth with Autism,” sought to demonstrate that transition-age youth with autism can learn work skills in community businesses with adequate support and applied behavior analysis (ABA) reinforcement.

The principal investigator, Paul Wehman, Ph.D., is a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and counseling and special education at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He is also the director of the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Employment for People with Physical Disabilities and the VCU Autism Center for Excellence.

He and his research team at VCU worked with the Faison School for Autism in Richmond, Va., to identify seven students between the ages of 18 and 21 at the school to participate in community-based work experiences and paid work opportunities. The team also recruited community businesses, among them, for example, a hotel, a YMCA, a drugstore, and a hospital, to serve as work sites.

The jobs took up between 50 and 75 percent of the students’ time during the school week. The research team created individualized instructional programs for each student based on their individual needs and the demands of their job. Using ABA techniques, team members taught the students vocational and work-related skills needed for their job duties. Five of the seven students received personal digital assistants (PDAs) to help with planning, work schedules, and self-monitoring. Although everyone, including people with ASD, relies on technology like smartphones today, then they were a relatively new technology for teaching social skills and planning to people with ASD.


Because the length of time to establish the community-based training programs extended to include the first year of the project, Dr. Wehman and his team were unable to report final results when the study concluded. However, Dr. Wehman did report these findings:

  • Young adults with autism are able to take on jobs in business settings. Five of the seven participants received at least the minimum wage during their assignments.
  • They can also be successfully trained in community sites versus the segregated school setting.
  • There is value for businesses in hiring individuals with autism. By the end of the study, five of the seven students had been hired at minimum wage by the businesses in which they had worked.

While findings were limited due to the small number of participants and time constraints, Dr. Wehman and his team planned to continue their work on this topic.

People with autism are severely underserved in terms of achieving employment outcomes. The work done through this study has demonstrated that students can successfully acquire skills in community settings and be employed by local businesses.

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