Note to readers: In each issue of The OARacle, we provide a helpful resource on a topic of interest within the autism community. This month’s article focuses on how to plan for your child’s transition to employment. Special thanks to OAR Scientific Council Chairman Peter Gerhardt for his contribution.
As adults, many of us define ourselves by what we do for a living. Not only do we identify ourselves by our career, we often define others by their occupations.
For individuals with developmental disabilities including autism, gainful employment is a regrettably uncommon outcome. According to a recent poll conducted by Lewis Harris and Associates (2002):
- Up to 75 percent of all people with disabilities are unemployed;
- 79 percent of all people with disabilities who are unemployed wish to be employed;
- Approximately 50 percent of working age people with disabilities who are unemployed believe employers are not sensitive to the needs of workers with disabilities.
While the statistics represent a diverse mix of people with varying disabilities, the results may unfortunately be somewhat optimistic with regards to the level of employment for individuals with autism. The significant social, communicative, behavioral and learning challenges associated with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) present individuals, their families, employers and support personnel with a number of complex challenges.
But the challenges should not be seen as insurmountable. With planning and preparation, these challenges can be viewed as opportunities for continued growth as your child with autism prepares for adulthood. Here are a few recommendations for families and professionals in planning their child’s transition:
Redefine Work Readiness
The term “work readiness” has generally been used to define a cohort of skills that an individual was required to demonstrate before he or she could be considered a candidate for community employment. These might include extended time on task, the absence of challenging behavior, some degree of social competence, conversational skills, etc. Unfortunately, this arbitrary standard of competence has results in a situation where only the most able individuals were deemed employable and inadvertently excluded far more people with ASD from the workforce than it has helped gain access. Given that many of the skills one needs to be employed are only learned while on the job, it puts individuals with ASD in a “Catch 22”-situation. This concept needs to be redefined.
Work readiness should be viewed as a process of ongoing job development for all individuals, independent of current skill or ability levels. Once that is acknowledged, more appropriate and functional transition programming (i.e., community experience, job sampling, social coaching, transportation training, self-management, etc.) can be implemented for all learners, not just for those whose learning curve may be shorter or behavioral challenges fewer.
Create an ITP
Federal education law requires the provision of school-to-work transition planning be developed and implemented for individuals with disabilities in the form of an individualized transition plan (ITP) beginning at the age of 14. The most critical question to be answered in any transition plan is simple – “Transition to what?” The answer to this question will help determine the end product (e.g., a minimum of 20 hours of employment in a desired and employable industry) and subsequently guide input and decision-making related to the content and process of the employment component of the ITP.
Transition planning meetings should involve the individual with ASD, the parents, and relevant educational and related support staff (including speech and language pathologists). One outcome of this meeting is the development of a transition goal that takes into account likes, dislikes, preferences, strengths and challenges of the individual with ASD. Further, intermediate objectives are identified and responsibilities assigned.
In this way a goal is set, discrete objectives are developed, progress is assessed and, based upon that assessment, modifications can be made as necessary (as they almost always are) at regularly scheduled follow up meetings. Without such a plan, future employment, while possible, becomes an increasingly distant goal. As the saying goes, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” All the more reason to plan, implement the plan, and then revisit and modify as necessary.
Seek Developmental Jobs
In obtaining a first job, it is helpful to remember the concept of developmental jobs. The term developmental job refers to the concept that for very few of us, our first job is rarely our dream job. Instead, these jobs are opportunities to learn how to have a job and meet specific needs of an individual’s life. They are important because they are the place where the person with ASD can begin to, 1) develop the skills necessary to keep and hold a job, and 2) develop a sense of which type of jobs and job conditions are best for him or her.
For any job though, there are some minimal requirements that should be expected. Employers need to provide a clean and safe working environment. There should be an opportunity for pay increases as a function of increasing levels of competence. Full-time employees should get benefits such as paid sick and vacation time at the minimum or at the maximum, receive the same health benefits given to their co-workers without disabilities. Last but not least, there should be opportunity for advancement.
Make the Right Job Match
Perhaps the most critical issue in job development is an appropriate “job match,” the meeting of individual preferences and job characteristics in the workplace. A high degree of job match means that the production, social, and environmental components of a job are viewed as favorable by the employee. A low degree indicates an unfavorable view of these conditions. For many learners with ASD for whom pay may not be a primary motivating factor, the degree of job match can be the critical variable in mutual employee and employer satisfaction. If not met well, it will likely lead to unemployment.
Carve Out a New Job
Today’s job market is both highly technical and generally complex with most employees required to multitask. This can play to the advantage of persons with ASD through “job carving,” an innovative approach that takes advantage of this multifaceted environment by working to create a position where none previously existed. This is a route that requires the interest and negotiating skills of a parent, sibling, or friend who knows the individual’s personality, strengths and weaknesses as well as his or her work interests. A family member of friend might be able to create a job opportunity in their own workplace or in a job setting targeted in the transition plan. If so, the objective is to present it to the employer for its economic benefit to the company as well as a strong job match for the individual with ASD.
Consider Co-Worker Training
After securing employment for the individual with ASD, parents and other support persons may have to help educate the individual’s co-workers on ASD and what it means in the life of their new colleague. For the most part, unless they have direct experience in supporting a person with ASD, most potential employers and co-workers will have limited understanding of ASD. For example, providing employers and specific co-workers with insight into how best of offer directions or feedback to their new colleague, letting them know that if they ask a question they may need to wait a few seconds for the reply while the question is being processed, or assuring them that despite a lack of eye contact, he or she is still paying attention, can be invaluable in preventing misunderstanding, miscommunication and, ultimately, the return to unemployment.
For many individuals with ASD and their families, the transition from school to work is a stressful time filled with new challenges, people, agencies, environments and decisions. With early, comprehensive planning, the transition to work can also be a period of growth, filled with new and positive support experiences and the development of an increasingly positive, individually determined quality of life. Despite the currently unfavorable employment statistics, many individuals with ASD are employable and very capable of being competent, dedicated employees with the right planning, training, and support. What is needed now is greater attention to more clearly identifying, through the support of applied research and the dissemination of best practices, those educational, behavioral, social, and systemic interventions and supports that will best allow individuals with ASD to achieve this highly valued goal.