As a transition specialist, I had observed young adults falling off “the services cliff” — when legally mandated services are discontinued after they finish high school — and becoming disconnected from education, work, and other supportive services. When I learned of the work that the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, specifically the Life Course Outcomes Research Program was involved in, I was excited. Their research mirrored exactly what I was seeing with the students and families I supported:
- More young adults with autism were disconnected from both work and education than their peers with other disabilities.
- Only 58% of young adults with autism ever worked between high school and their early 20s — the lowest rate of employment in comparison to their peers with other types of disabilities.
- Most (90%) individuals with autism who worked for pay during high school went on to have a job during their early 20s.
When I became assistant director of Transition Pathways, the community-focused branch of Life Course Outcomes, I was anxious to be part of the solution. Over the last five years, our team has had the opportunity to innovate and develop programs with cross-sector partners in Philadelphia that are in direct response to what the research revealed. Transition Pathways is a small but mighty department with a clear mission to ensure young adults on the autism spectrum can reach their full potential. Since its inception, it has been staffed by a creative group of problem solvers who develop innovative solutions to the complex and multifaceted concerns that surround employment for young adults on the autism spectrum. For example, we are committed to supporting young people in Philadelphia who face multiple barriers as a result of systemic ableism, racism, and poverty.
As mentioned, many adults on the autism spectrum are disconnected from both education and work opportunities after high school. They face chronic unemployment or are stuck in low-wage, part-time jobs. Knowing this, our convictions remain strong that employment is the foundation of adult life for most people. All Transition Pathways initiatives support individuals to achieve inclusive, full employment, with trajectories that lead to meaningful careers. We do this by supporting:
- Individuals to prepare for employment and connecting them to career opportunities through internships.
- The business community to accelerate inclusive hiring practices and connect employers to a reliable pipeline of talent to build equitable and inclusive workplaces.
Both approaches are essential. As described in a CBS’s 60 Minutes episode that aired in October 2020, the business community is welcoming neurodiversity as a competitive edge. Major corporations across the globe are developing initiatives or exploring options for hiring individuals on the autism spectrum. An article on the Spectrum Fusion website noted that a common misconception about people who are autistic is that they are all tech-savvy and excel in math and sciences, but that is far from the reality. Employers should invite and encourage autistic people whose skills and abilities are different from the stereotypes. To create sustainable change for future generations of workers, the culture and attitudes of employers, communities, and the public must shift to embrace and support the talents of neurodivergent people.
This is evidenced by former Transition Pathways’ Project SEARCH intern, Adrienne. Despite hesitation and lack of experience, Adrienne successfully learned to commute via public transportation to Drexel from her South Philadelphia home. She completed three internship rotations at Drexel University during the Project SEARCH year. Upon program completion, Adrienne accepted her certificate of completion, and with support from Transition Pathways partners, she obtained full-time employment at the Philadelphia International Airport, a position she prepared for through her Project SEARCH internships.
Five years later, she still works at the airport, earning benefits and a competitive wage. Adrienne reports that she enjoys organizing, which has contributed to her success at the airport. Her supervisor agreed, noting in the Philadelphia Airport newsletter that “[Adrienne’s] organizational skills are really helping us and we’re able to get things done that we wouldn’t have before.”
Like Adrienne, her colleague at the Philadelphia International Airport, DeShaun, was also a former intern at Project SEARCH. “My job at the airport is administrative assistant. I have learned about shredding, filing…my thing is that I get along with coworkers well…Now I support myself because I get paid,” DeShaun explains in a Transition Pathways video. DeShaun knows that he can still rely on his mom for help, as his mom comments, “Of course, I am still his parent, but he takes me out of the equation – he is just doing him.” DeShaun and his mother both attribute his success to the experience he gained through his Project Search internships.
It is the hope that stories like Adrienne’s and Deshaun’s become the norm so that the days of un-and underemployment are the anomaly, rather than the common reality. Collectively, we should set our expectations high, strive to provide work experience as early as middle school, promote inclusion within our business community, and advocate so individuals on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities can reach their full potential.
Jackie Abrams, M.Ed., is the associate director for the Transition Pathways Program at the A.J. Drexel Institute. She has spent the past 11 years of her career building transition programming from the ground up. Prior to taking on that role, she was the director and instructor of Rowan College at Gloucester County’s Adult Center for Transition, a program that affords young adults with developmental and other disabilities the academic, vocational, and socialization skills necessary to become independent contributing members of society. She holds a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of Delaware and a Master of Education in School Leadership from Wilmington University.