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How to Help Prepare Children With Autism for a Job

May 29, 2020


The thought of your child’s future can be both distressing and exciting at the same time. When your child has autism (ASD), it can be challenging to gauge what the future will hold, especially when the child is still young. A full-time career, post-secondary education, a day program, volunteer work—there are so many paths based on so many factors.

How to Help Prepare Children With Autism for a Job

Most parents raising children with ASD are familiar with the “services cliff” metaphor—after high school, the federal government no longer mandates special education services. The abrupt end of a familiar support model can feel jarring as there is no longer a transition team creating goals and lining up services.

The onus falls on the shoulders of the individual and/or family to manage housing, finances, medical, social activities, and employment. While this new reality can be overwhelming, the good news is there is a great deal research, information, and resources to help families make meaningful, fulfilling life decisions with their child.

Joining the Working World

When it comes to employment, preparing ahead of time—sometimes years in advance—can make a significant difference in a person’s success. There are several, comprehensive guides with detailed pathways to support families from Autism Speaks to The Minnesota Department of Education + Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Helping your employment-bound child begins with early preparation:

Start working in high school.

One of the biggest predictors of post-graduation employment is having a job in high school. According to the National Autism Indicators Report (2015), about 90 percent of youth with ASD who had a job in high school went on to have a job in their early 20s. This is compared to 40 percent who did not work in high school.

Katrina Roberts, Director of the Business Academy at Alpine Learning Group, notes from her experience that exposing students to a variety of work experiences adds to their post-school success.

“Students who initially came into our transition program not knowing whether they wanted to work, or what type of work they would want to do, left the program confident in their new-found skills, as well as what career goals they now had for themselves,” Roberts said. “They also left with a full resume, and some left employed by the companies they interned with.”

Dr. Temple Grandin, a staunch supporter of early employment, proposes some actionable tips at the 2017 Living With Autism conference in Detroit. “…Work experience can start small (like) walking dogs in the neighborhood or mowing lawns.”

Be active in the transition planning process during middle and high school.

The National Autism Indicators Report (2015) found that, according to their teachers, only 58 percent of youth with ASD had a transition plan in place by the federally required age of 16. Only 60 percent of parents participated in the process, yet 80 percent of those who did report found it useful.

Those statistics are astounding considering transition planning is crucial for future success, focusing on both the academic and functional skills needed to facilitate the progression from high school to post-graduation. There are many savvy families out there lining up a position in specialized programs or on waitlists.

About 50,000 youth with ASD exit high school each year and there are limited spots in these programs, so it’s imperative to ensure the transition team is covering all possible opportunities for your child. Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child and encourage your child to participate as much as possible to voice his/her hopes and dreams.

Start working on soft skills.

This can be an area of difficulty for many people with ASD but worth practicing, again and again. You can use modeling – videos or in-person – prompting, social stories, positive reinforcement, and repeated practice with multiple people across different environments to teach these skills. Some topics from Autism Speaks Transition Toolkit include:

  • Pleasantries and small talk
  • When and how to join/exit a conversation
  • Manners
  • Conflict resolution
  • Reading social cues and personal space
  • Recognizing appropriate vs inappropriate work conversation
  • Grooming/hygiene
  • Perspective taking/empathy
  • Accepting suggestions, corrective feedback, and criticism
  • Coping/anger management

Start working on self-advocacy skills.

According to the toolkit, self-advocacy is a crucial skill at any age but particularly for individuals transitioning to adulthood. It includes knowing your rights, asking for accommodations, speaking up for yourself, negotiating for yourself, utilizing the resources available, and making your own life decisions.

You can facilitate this by modeling self-advocacy, helping your child find self-advocacy groups to participate in, and allowing your child to be the central person in the employment preparation and decision-making process. Self-advocacy can begin at a very early age by allowing your child to make simple choices (e.g., cereal vs. waffles) and teaching how to ask for help.

Explore your child’s strengths and interests.

Helping your child brainstorm what he/she loves to do and what he/she is good at is key to finding the right job. Your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) office provides vocational assessments conducted by a VR counselor to explore this. Volunteering, an internship, or an apprenticeship create opportunities for valuable work experience, which can be translated into a smooth career path.

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The Organization for Autism Research’s (OAR) transition to adulthood guide points out that enjoyment and match are crucial to job motivation. When considering a job match, they examine physical and social components. Physical job match components can include acceptable noise and activity levels, hours of work, acceptable margin of error and production requirements.

Social job match components can include clear job expectations, levels of interaction with colleagues, personal space available, grooming/hygiene requirements, coworker training/support, and demands on communication skills.

Research accommodations and available supports.

Even if your child is not 100 percent independent on all tasks, that should not preclude them from meaningful employment.

  • Your state’s VR office provides a variety of support services, from assessing your child, creating an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE), providing training, counseling, job placement, and various levels of employment support
  • The Job Accommodation Network (JAN) is an excellent resource to help individuals with ASD understand workplace accommodations
  • Companies like SAP and Microsoft have programs dedicated to supporting employees with ASD from the hiring process to securing a promotion, placing value on their contributions and creating opportunities for them to thrive
  • Companies like Rethink Benefits have created a solution for the employers to better support employees with developmental disabilities while on the job with their Neurodiversity Inclusion Center. Ongoing consultation with specialists and on-demand, video-based training empowers supervisors and managers to create inclusive and supportive work environments for all employees to succeed

Read employment stories with your child to get motivated.

Empowering individuals with ASD with the knowledge they can pursue their employment goals is important. It’s also key to guide them to people and resources that can help them get there. The Pacer Center showcases many stories from individuals with disabilities who are successfully pursuing their career dreams and want to share their experiences.

Research tells us parental involvement in the form of emotional and instructional supports translates into positive outcomes for their child’s employment success (Lee & Carter, 2012). While there is a great deal of literature out there about the transition to employment, and it does take time to navigate, you have an exciting opportunity to empower and guide your child toward a meaningful career.

This article was featured in Issue 94 – Daily Strategies Families Need

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