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Is Vocational Therapy Effective for Autism?

October 13, 2023

Vocational therapy is a branch of occupational therapy. It uses work scenarios as a means of treatment to help strengthen and develop interpersonal skills in a workplace environment.

Many young adults with autism who are getting ready to choose a career typically benefit from learning various skills beforehand. These skills can be taught and made available through vocational therapy.

Is Vocational Therapy Effective for Autism?

What skills can be learned?

Among the skills learned are typical work tasks and other skills necessary for the workplace. The services are based on each person and their abilities.

Vocational therapy will work with occupational therapy on a treatment plan and skills needed to learn in the therapy sessions. Skills like customer interactions, problem-solving, and social skills.

There are so many skills necessary to become part of a team at a workplace. Vocational therapy pinpoints what skills an individual needs and works on those skills.

What is vocational therapy or treatment?

Vocational therapy stemmed from occupational therapy and usually, occupational therapists take an active role with vocational therapists during planning. They work with the patient to create a plan.

Adults with autism can use vocational therapy to help overcome barriers in the workplace. When vocational therapy is of interest, a medical therapist assesses whether this therapy is beneficial.

Why is an assessment necessary for vocational therapy to start?

Once a need is recognized, whether at school or during a career, an initial assessment is performed by an occupational therapist. The therapist will determine whether the program is a right fit.

A vocational therapist can then see if the assessment can be used to determine the strengths of clients. They can also discuss goals and desires with the clients.

Once this has been discussed, potential trade opportunities are discussed with the client, individually. Vocational goals can then be set and therapy started.

Clients will have access to and actively participate in the creation of their therapy sessions. This is an important part because everyone needs to participate and understand the therapy plan.

What is the difference between occupational therapy and vocational therapy?

Occupational therapy:

Occupational therapy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as a type of therapy people use when recuperating from physical, mental injury, or illness that encourages rehabilitation through daily activities. It is often also used for children with autism or developmental challenges to support them with learning skills and tasks.

Vocational therapy:

Vocational therapy is a sub-therapy of occupational therapy where the focus of the therapy is to prepare individuals for the world of employment.

What is included in a vocational assessment?

When it comes to a vocational rehabilitation assessment, the therapist identifies where a person’s skill set and job functionality are initially. They then determine career interests and possible placement.

How these job skills and job tasks work together for the individual will be considered. Therapy will then consist of expectations and what the worker’s role will be for the individual.

The vocational rehabilitation specialists will work alongside patients and create an action plan. That plan can be as simple and/or challenging as is necessary and have different areas to pinpoint.

Areas and focus of vocational assessment:

  • The eligibility to participate for the individual in the vocational rehabilitation program
  • Goal setting for long term employment
  • Goals including interpersonal skills, self esteem, education needed and skills that could present challenges and the plan to work on them
  • The therapist will pinpoint what services are necessary and add them to the action plan
  • Plans made of when sessions will be started and end date
  • Evaluations and schedules will be created for the specifics of the vocational therapy

All of these areas need to be remembered because if patients are ineligible, they will not be able to participate. Also, having some sort of employment plan before going in will help the process.

Once the individual and therapist have figured out what the person’s goals are and what type of rehabilitation they may need, the plan can get started. Having these basics is important.

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What does vocational rehabilitation involve?

When it comes to vocational rehabilitation, it starts with an initial occupational therapist evaluation. This is based on whether they have a disability, brain injury, or possible illness that affects job skills.

Overall the occupational therapist works with vocational rehabilitation experts to create a plan. It would be to help the person with independence and functionality on the job and performance.

The vocational rehabilitation program would then follow the plan that was created. Occupational therapists and vocational therapists would track improvements and whether changes are necessary.

The individual and their parents or caregivers would also be active members when the goals are being created. In some instances, the employers could also be asked which skills are needed for employment.

What are the benefits of vocational therapy?

There haven’t been many studies associated with vocational therapy and how it affects young adults and older adults. Within those limited studies though, there were some benefits listed.

Within five studies that have been listed, a range of improvements was reported. These include career success and three studies showed increased employment rates of autistic adults.

Along with job related improvements, there were personal benefits. The individuals studied showed a higher quality of life, as well as improved ASD symptoms, and cognitive function when employed.

What are the types of vocational therapy?

Vocational rehabilitation has four different therapy types. These include personal adjustment, prevocational, compensatory, and vocational training.

There are differences between each type. These differences can be the focus of therapy and treatment of the individual and most clients can find one that they can succeed with.

Types of vocational therapy:

Personal adjustment training:

This takes resources that are available within the community of the individual with autism.

Prevocational training:

This can take place individually or in a group setting. The counseling uses different tasks and their use of whatever behavior modification is needed to help the individual develop work skills.

Compensatory training:

When a client is qualified for compensatory training, that means that they can receive vocational rehabilitation to improve their chances of returning to or joining the workforce.

Vocational training:

With this, the client is specifically working on trade and education towards their goal of long-term employment.

What type is the best for autism?

Although all three types are beneficial, the one that benefits someone with autism depends on the person. A major consideration when choosing would be to find what motivates the individual.

There is no one-size-fits-all for people with autism. If an autistic individual is looking into these different trainings they can discuss options with their occupational or vocational therapist.

The decision may also depend on the previous or current work history, physical health, strengths, and abilities of the client. Also, considering future employment goals is important.

What does vocational counseling do?

Vocational rehabilitation, or counseling, are services that are created to help skills and abilities develop that would help in a specific workplace. These are based on the client’s strengths.

Clients with physical and/or cognitive disabilities choose what career path they are interested in. The skills required are then taught by a therapist considering the abilities of the individual client.

Is there a difference if an adult with autism has a work history?

There could be a difference in individual success depending on if an individual has had a work history. It is important to know if they enjoyed the work they did and what skills they gained.

That joy and skill set would be taken into consideration when goals and plans are being developed. The therapist would make changes based on this knowledge and help further the skill set that was started.

This would increase the likelihood and ability the individual would have of getting and maintaining a job. With that, it could help them improve their self-esteem, health, and overall state of being.

This may not be true for every person who has had previous experience. It was noted in a study by Healy, Lydon and Walsh titled Employment and Vocational Skills Among Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Predictors, Impact, and Interventions where the conductors noticed a connection with the participants who worked before.

What is an example of a vocational rehabilitation service?

There are many ways that vocational rehabilitation services can be used. They can include one or all of the following:

  • counseling
  • education
  • work placement
  • physical or mental restoration
  • workplace training
  • work accommodations and modifications

How does this work together?

All of these aspects can work together and be a part of the therapy for a short or extended period of time. The aspects that are important to be constants are counseling and guidance.

The education and career placement are discussed. Then the individual talks to their therapist and will discuss skills, abilities, and whether the client has had the ability to participate in their chosen career.

Physical, mental, developmental, and cognitive abilities are central to vocational rehabilitation. Patients determine what they want to work on first and talk to their therapist.

All of these factors are taken into consideration, along with what the individual’s goals are to create a rehabilitation plan. The therapy schedule can be discussed and implemented once everything is done.

What are differing environmental and workplace factors that could affect therapy?

The individual would know what vocation they are looking into and would learn how to talk to potential employers and prepare for interviews and skills necessary to work.

The environment of the workplace would need to be taken into consideration depending on if the client has a health and or medical need. This could include assistive technology like the text to speech converters.

There is a lot depending on an individual’s needs and goals. There may be certain vocations that wouldn’t work and this is why it is important to know goals and possible triggers.

Also, there may need to be environmental changes and changes to the therapy needed. These could help with things that can’t be planned, like shouting or other loud or sudden noises.

A relationship with the business is crucial and helps. It is important the business is willing to work alongside the individual with their knowledge of necessary and potential supports.

Is vocational therapy effective for autism?

Vocational therapy is a sub-therapy of occupational therapy. Occupational therapists assist with the therapy, with the client and vocational therapist, goals, and overall treatment of the client.

There have been few studies conducted specifically for vocational therapy and autism. Medical professionals, occupational therapists, and vocational therapists have conducted research.

Although the research is limited, therapists do see some improvements with tests conducted. Most of the research showed improvements were based on different variables and abilities.

These variables would include the individual, work placement, and environment type. These impacted the success, therapy, treatment, or lack of employment for the person with autism.

Is there evidence?

There was a specific study conducted by Healy, Lydon, and Walsh that was focused on autistic people between the ages of 21-29 years old. These individuals were unable to gain work because of various behaviors associated with autism.

The study found that the clients that were successful at getting and maintaining a line of work for 6-30 months. There were many factors those clients who succeeded had in common.

What were the differences between those who succeeded and those who did not?

Those factors included their communication abilities and level, interpersonal skills, and self-control. Another successful factor was the presence of family and work support.

Clients didn’t do as well if the task included problem-solving, the ability to be flexible, making decisions, and/or prioritizing duties. Another factor was if the task involves making quick decisions.

Whereas, when families provided daily praise and financial incentives, it helped keep individuals motivated. Another factor was maintaining the therapy and goals helped with long-term employment.

Businesses that hired people with autism provided much support. These supports included educational programs, environmental modifications, and a behavior contract was supervised and supported by employers.

Could this therapy work for you and/or your family?

This is a question with a lot of possibilities and factors for success or not. There are always individual differences and skills to take into consideration.

Also, it would depend on the job market and what is available. Individual, social, and emotional skills of the adults with disabilities and whether they need support and the business can provide them, are all crucial.

Things to also think about are what treatments or therapy you or the adult with ASD are currently active with. The therapist and medical professionals, such as a family doctor, would be able to help.

Vocational therapy could be a great option for the individual with a disability who is actively seeking work. They could be participating in rehabilitation, whether it’s behavioral, physical or other potential needs.


Cannella-Malone, H., & Seaman, R. (2016). Vocational Skills Interventions for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Review of the Literature.                                                https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rachel-Seaman-Tullis/publication/296620119_Vocational_Skills_Interventions_for_Adults_with_Autism_Spectrum_Disorder_A_Review_of_the_Literature/links/570d917708ae3199889bc29d/Vocational-Skills-Interventions-for-Adults-with-Autism-Spectrum-Disorder-A-Review-of-the-Literature.pdf




Dove, D., McPheeters, M., Sathe, Taylor, J., N., Veenstra-VanderWeele, J., & Warren, Z. (2012). A Systematic Review of Vocational Interventions for Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074624/

Healy, O., Lydon, S., Walsh, L. (2014). Employment and Vocational Skills Among Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Predictors.                                                https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s40489-014-0024-7.pdf


Max Planck Institute. (2022). Vocational Therapy. https://www.psych.mpg.de/2193417/Arbeitstherapie#:~:text=Vocational%20therapy%20%E2%80%93%20a%20section%20of,the%20agent%20(definition%20DVE).


Shapiro, J. (2015). How Vocational Rehabilitation Works Under Workers’ Compensation. https://wrslawfirm.com/how-a-workers-compensation-lawyer-handles-vocational-rehabilitation/#:~:text=Vocational%20Rehabilitation%20is%20a%20multi,workforce%20after%20a%20disabling%20injury.


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