People on the autism spectrum are valuable members of our communities. They have many roles to play, dreams to achieve, and contributions to make. Near the top of that list is having a job. For most people, work provides more than just an income. It is part of one’s identity and one of the main ways people can participate in and contribute to their community.
While some on the autism spectrum do achieve employment, the overall percentage of people finding and keeping paid work remains very low. Much of my research reports on national indicators of life outcomes, such as the employment rate or the percentage of people who attend college. Positive outcomes are possible, but remain the exception. For instance, a study of ours published in a 2012 issue of Pediatrics discovered that just over half of youth on the autism spectrum are completely disconnected from both employment and educational opportunities during the first two years after high school.
These obstacles are not all related to the characteristics of autism. There is no doubt that finding better clinical intervention and educational approaches to build skills and learn how to manage challenging behaviors in a work setting is certainly important. However, it’s also important to realize that job outcomes are heavily influenced by the behaviors and policies of organizations charged with helping adults with autism.
Three recent developments are potential game-changers when it comes to the employment of adults on the autism spectrum. These developments are shaping the future of employment prospects for individuals with autism:
- Employment First is a concept that promotes community-based, inclusive employment opportunities for adults with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Labor has formally endorsed the principles behind this initiative, which aims to “facilitate the full inclusion of people with the most significant disabilities in the workplace and community. Under the Employment First approach, community-based, integrated employment is the first option for employment services for youth and adults with significant disabilities.”
Integrated employment means employing people with disabilities in typical workplaces, rather than sheltered workshops or day care centers, paying them at least minimum wage, and being paid by the employer. In other words, giving them jobs like those that people without disabilities have.
The Employment First approach guards against a default setting of low expectations which assumes that people with disabilities A) cannot succeed in an integrated workplace setting, and B) do not deserve to be paid at least minimum wage. However, some people may ultimately benefit from being in a workplace setting that is not integrated.
- Every day in the United States, nearly half a million adults with developmental disabilities are in segregated job and day programs. In April 2014, the Department of Justice reached a landmark settlement in Rhode Island around the issue of segregated employment. The settlement cited the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Supreme Court’s Olmstead v. L.C decision that mandates adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) be supported in the most community-integrated setting possible.
Over the next several years, over 3,000 Rhode Island citizens with I/DD – including many on the autism spectrum – will have help finding work in integrated community settings. This prospect initially frightened many families who felt their adult children were safe in the sheltered workshop settings. However, early experiences of success have converted some initial skeptics into avid supporters.
Will these mandates for integrated employment work for everyone? Are there some people who would benefit from working in a more sheltered setting? These are important questions that will need to be carefully studied.
- In another encouraging development on the employment front, the effective Project SEARCH model for job training with disabled high school students is being successfully adapted for youth on the autism spectrum. Project Search assists students with autism transition from high school to employment. Key to the success of this model is the willingness of state policy leaders in New York to allow Vocational Rehabilitation funds to supplement special education placements while youth are still in high school.
These are all examples of situations where it has taken a continued realignment and evolution of policies and organizational behaviors to help more people with autism get jobs and open that essential gateway to community contribution and participation.
The low employment rate status quo is unacceptable. It’s time for new approaches beyond those currently available in most communities. More employers are concluding that persons with autism are capable employees. Doors to the workplace are opening in some places. Evolving policies reflect changing beliefs, values and attitudes about employment. Making sure these promising seeds of change take root and grow into sustainable, measurable improvements for many will take continued advocacy and careful research.
Paul Shattuck, PhD, is the leader of the Research Program Area on Life Course Outcomes at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and an associate professor in the Drexel University School of Public Health. Most of his current research is aimed at understanding services and related outcomes among youth with autism as they leave high school and transition to young adulthood. Dr. Shattuck’s work has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Science Foundation, the Institute for Education Sciences, Autism Speaks, the Emch Foundation, and OAR.