Luke, a towheaded boy on the autism spectrum, jolted upright in his seat as the director of special education, a woman in her mid-forties, announced that he was to repeat the 8th grade. Again.
He gazed at me with a doe-eyed look that made my heart lurch, as if imploring Help me, Mom.
I cleared my throat and said, “But, Ma’am, Luke’s been in the same grade for the past two years.”
The director spread her hands and shrugged. “He may as well stay in school as long as he can, for what else has he got to do after he gets out?”
Flash forward five years, and truer words were never spoken.
Luke is one of 500,000 US teens that are anticipated to ride the crest of a wave of people with autism exiting the public school system within the next 10 years, a tsunami that society and employers alike are not ready for. According to the AFAA, or Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, just over 50 percent of young adults on the autism spectrum worked for pay eight years after they finished high school. Ninety percent of adults with autism are either unemployed, or under-employed, and under 16 percent have full-time jobs.
Luke’s main issue is an inability to express himself verbally. That, coupled with limited social skills, got an “autism” label smacked on him, where he has joined a company with 1.5 million other Americans.
He finally squeaked through high school, then found himself in the job pool.
A piece of cake finding him a job, I thought to myself, as I filled out an application for a major corporation for Luke. I checked off the “do you have a disability?” box with glee, just knowing that a job would fall into his lap; especially since I knew that employers were given tax benefits for hiring the disabled under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) act, which was created in 1996 to help keep the disabled off of the Social Security Income (SSI) rosters, in which employers have reaped billions of dollars since its inception.
I figured hiring managers sat at their desks with bated breath, ready to pounce on the applications that stated “I have a disability.”
Boy, was I in for a rude awakening. My spirits sank lower and lower as Luke’s phone remained silent, and my fingers became numb from filling out application after application, with not so much as a “we’re considering you” email. My thoughts turned dark as my despair deepened. He may as well have been Rain Man, I grumbled to myself as I filled out yet another application, with the challenges that he has faced in getting a job, as many employers, as well as the general public, have the misperception that having an autism label means being mentally-challenged.
Finally, after sending his resume to countless employers, we received the golden ticket in the form of an email expressing interest in Luke, and requesting a phone interview. Many employers use phone interviews as an initial employment screening tool to determine social skills (or lack of them) and enthusiasm for the job, and promptly weed out the ones who don’t measure up to their standards. But since this company knew that Luke was on the autism spectrum, surely they would take that into account and accommodate him as needed during the interview, or so I thought.
“We’re on our way!” I shouted as I picked Luke up and twirled him around. “They’ll find out what a wonderful person you are, and will give you a job for sure!”
My smug self then blasted the news on social media that Luke was about to become a career man, and basked in the glow of the congratulatory notes and likes that followed.
The day of the phone interview I was atwitter with nervous energy, but confident that Luke would get the job. “Just be your sweet self,” I advised him, “and they won’t help but love you and hire you right away!”
Luke answered his phone politely enough, but responded with “yes” or “no” to their questions, and asked no questions in return. The interview was over within a matter of minutes, and he received an email shortly thereafter thanking him for his time, but, unfortunately, he was not considered for employment with their company.
My heart fell to the pit of my stomach as the words jumped out at me, and I was sick with a feeling of helplessness.
Would anyone ever give this sweet kid a chance in life?
After months of being so frustrated that I wanted to pull my hair out, he was finally hired by a major corporation who did not require a phone interview, and he is as happy as a lark there. What I learned along the way, I want to pass along to you, as the parent of an autistic child, so that you will be more prepared for the real world than I was.
Here is a list of five things I would have done differently:
1. Utilize your public school’s transition coordinator
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 04), the federal government stipulates that all public schools must provide transition services to special education students by the age of 16. That means that a care plan and goals are set in place, and may include academic preparation, development of independent living skills, exposure to the community and vocational skills assessments. If your school does not implement a transition plan for your child by the age of 16, it’s within your rights to request one.
2. Start learning a vocational skill while still in high school
I shielded Luke from the real world while he was in high school, which I realize now was a mistake. If I had encouraged him to get a job while he was in school, he could have learned valuable coping skills that would have carried him into the adult world. Even a job bagging groceries or flipping burgers would have been very beneficial in helping him grow his wings and leave the nest, so to speak. There are major grocery stores and fast food chains who are more than willing to hire and accommodate our special needs kids.
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3. Contact your local Vocational Rehabilitation
Vocational Rehabilitation, or Vocational Rehab, is a federal-state service that helps the mentally and physically-disabled find and maintain employment. Vocational Rehab is based on eligibility. One must prove that he/she is disabled and qualifies for their services. Vocational Rehab puts the candidate through a battery of tests, which may include psychological and medical assessments. Once the candidate is considered disabled, a job coach is paired with him/her and helps build their resume, then guides them down the road toward paid employment. A good job coach is skilled at detecting a person’s strengths, as well as weaknesses, and steers them toward a job where they will be most successful. They call potential employers, often knocking on doors of establishments that have a reputation of hiring the disabled. Once an employer expresses an interest in the client, the job coach often contacts the hiring manager and bypasses the dreaded phone interview, then accompanies the client to their job interviews. Once the person is hired, the job coach stays with them on-the-job for up to three months, as needed.
4. Contact a potential employer and let them know that your child needs special accommodations
This is where I messed up with the first interview, which was by phone. I didn’t realize that, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) it was within Luke’s rights to request an in-person interview. The ADA was established in 1990, requiring employers to make a reasonable accommodation to enable a person with a disability to be considered for a job opening that he/she is otherwise qualified for. Since Luke has a documented expressive-language disorder, he would be placed at a distinct disadvantage if he was required to have a job interview over the phone. Because of the ADA, either he or a family member, or even a job coach could call or email the employer in advance and request a face-to-face interview.
5. Help your child to shine
This one should probably rank at the top, and is a no-brainer, but this is still often overlooked. It’s the simple things that make a big impact, like making sure the hair is cut into a neat style, and clean, and that the clothes worn to an interview are professional; slacks and a collared shirt for the men, with closed-toe, non-athletic shoes, and dresses or dress slacks and a modest blouse for the women. Also, try to provide a clean diet, avoiding gluten, dairy and sugar as much as possible, and get your child outside to exercise. Even a brisk walk around the block does much for the psyche. And don’t forget to stress the importance of a firm handshake, good eye contact (even if fleeting), and most of all, a heartfelt “please” and “thank-you!”
Our kids may seem different to the outside world, but with our guidance as parents, we can teach society, and employers alike, that a person with autism has a lot to offer as productive citizens if just given the chance.
This article was featured in Issue 76 – Raising A Child with Autism