I am often asked how we can prepare autistic youth to thrive in the workplace. My answer is that helping our youth develop strong communication and self-determination skills that instill confidence and purpose is one of the most important things we can do to support them as they prepare for their futures. The ability to communicate is integral to our existence as human beings and the field of communication is broad and deep. While we certainly cannot cover it in its entirety here, these are a few essential skills that, if focused on early and often, will help to ensure success. Young people must be able to:
- Understand their disability: First and foremost, every young autistic person should understand their disability, the strengths it gives them as well as any challenges or barriers that may be present. They should be encouraged to take pride in who they are, by connecting with other autistic people, learning about autism history and the disability rights movement, and understanding their legal rights in education and employment.
Young people who are able to understand and adequately articulate their disabilities ultimately find more success in the workplace. By understanding their disabilities, they grow in their ability to be self-aware, one of the critical factors for success in a working environment.
Those who understand and disclose their disabilities at work are also often more confident, relaxed, and productive as they feel they are bringing their whole selves to work. They are also better equipped to explain their working style (i.e. “I do best when I can walk and think at the same time,” or “I may not always look directly at you, but please know that I am listening to you and am fully engaged.” They are better prepared to ask for necessary accommodations when looking for a job and once they are on the job. Employers cannot provide accommodations without disclosure from the applicant or employee. Young people who are not aware of their disabilities and where they may need support put themselves at a disadvantage.
- Articulate their strengths, passions, and where they shine: Many young people are not comfortable speaking about their strengths; however, it is critical that they learn to do so. This skill is essential to getting and keeping a job. If they cannot see their strengths, we must help them see themselves as their friends, family, teachers, and others see them. They don’t need a long list — being able to speak about two or three key strengths is fine. Those strengths can be general (i.e., “I am compassionate.” “I am a good team player.” “I am a problem solver”) or specific (i.e., “I am artistic.” “I am good with numbers.” “I am detail oriented.”). Most important is that young people be able to articulate these strengths and describe specific examples of how they have applied those skills in a work-like setting (at school, for example, in an internship, or a part-time job). They also must be able to do so seamlessly and with confidence.
- Communicate the supports they need to be successful. In high school and the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process, others often determine for the student what supports are necessary to achieve academic success. In the workplace, however, the employee must articulate what is needed for them to succeed. This does not have to be complicated. It can be as simple as “I do best when instructions are clear, specific, and in writing.” or “I am most productive when I am given one assignment at a time with a clear deadline attached.” Disclosure of a disability is not enough to gain reasonable accommodations, or ultimately, to flourish. If we teach our autistic youth early on to be able to specify what they need to succeed, they can take pride in and ownership of their disabilities and their futures.
How Do We Teach These Skills to Autistic Youth?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a good start:
- The most important way is practice, practice, and practice, with ample space for feedback that is both supportive and productive. Mock interviews are essential. Mock interviews work best with groups so there can be peer-to-peer feedback. One person plays the role of the interviewer and another the interviewee. Having each person in the group do both gives each person a better feel for and understanding of how interviews work.
- Ask them to reflect on these issues — keeping a journal is an easy way to do that. Prompts can be helpful for certain youth when they first start journaling. Helpful prompts for this exercise include:
- General prompts
- What are three words that describe your strengths? Or describe a time when you felt confident or successful.
- What would your friends or family say about you?
- What are three words that describe your challenges? Or describe something that is challenging for you.
- Describe a time when you felt you overcame a challenge and what helped you to do so.
- What supports are helpful for you to succeed?
- What do you understand are your disabilities?
- What is your super power?
- Post-interview prompts
- What did you do well in your mock interview?
- What could you work on?
- What are three things you will do differently in your next interview?
- Role playing creates a safe space to practice these skills, like the mock interviewing described above. Other role-playing possibilities are to have young people practice:
- Articulating where they are strong and where they need support.
- Asking for an accommodation at work or for an interview.
- Asking for clarification of an issue or extension of a deadline.
- Use video playback and mirroring activities, which can very effectively allow young people to gain perspective and insight into how their answers are being delivered and received, and ultimately, to make adjustments where appropriate.
If we can ensure that our autistic youth are able to understand their autism, speak to their strengths and interests, and advocate for themselves, they will be far better prepared to thrive in the workplace.
Carolyn Jeppsen is the CEO, president, and co-founder of BroadFutures, a nonprofit organization with a mission to empower young neurodiverse people through training, mentoring and internship programs. She is passionate about creating innovative solutions to empower young people with disabilities to succeed in education and the workforce. She speaks nationally on the benefits of a diverse workforce that includes individuals with disabilities, as well as the value proposition of internships for young people with learning and attention issues. She is the proud parent of three young adult daughters, two of whom identify as having disabilities.