Much attention is paid to the educational needs of children with autism. Most of the media exposure on autism emphasizes the power of early intervention and the need for specialized instruction at school. While the media, parents and autism organizations have increased awareness, it remains difficult to secure a job placement for individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) for a variety of reasons. Relatively little information focuses on the needs of adults with autism or the need to prepare learners with ASD for adult life and for the supports available for adults with disabilities. In fact, individuals with ASD will spend the majority of their lives as adults, in environments with fewer resources than educational settings. It is imperative to build strong work skills that can lead to meaningful engagement and employment. In addition, it is important to identify settings, tasks, and activities that are preferred by the learner, to expand and to enhance their work, leisure, and social experiences as adults.
As individuals with autism transition to adulthood, it is important to find valuable and meaningful opportunities based on each individual’s specific needs and interests. The range of skill levels and behavioral challenges associated with autism require a wide array of opportunities and supports. Ideally all aspects of their needs are met within these programs, including providing experiences that lead them to being gainfully employed. In the disability treatment community, there is a strong emphasis on securing employment for all individuals with intellectual disabilities, including those with ASD. A wide variety of employment arrangements can work for individuals with ASD. Great progress has been made in integrating preference into the selection of work tasks and environments. In addition, creative schedules, supports, and arrangements can increase the success of employment placements. Increasingly, employers are being educated about both the needs of individuals with ASD and their potential contributions to the workplace.
In our work at Melmark, however, we have discovered that it is not always easy to secure regular employment for our adults. Employers may be resistant to hiring individuals with ASD due to a lack of understanding of their unique abilities and characteristics. As each individual with autism possesses specific skills and strengths in different employment areas, it is important to ensure that the job requirements match the unique skills and capabilities of each individual with autism. For example, individuals initially may only be able to work for 1 hour and manage 1 to 2 tasks, requiring employers to be creative and flexible. Due to the spectrum of autism, some individuals do not have the ability to participate in competitive employment opportunities without support on a consistent basis. Other individuals may require job training and support on a consistent basis, which may also require more than one individual working at that site.
Through volunteering, we have been able to bridge the gap for our individuals who are interested in eventual competitive employment, but who do not yet possess the skill set necessary for community employment. Slowly, these placements can be shaped into experiences that parallel paid employment. In the interim, it provides a flexible, safe, and individualized context in which employment skills can be honed, either individually or in small work enclaves of two or three individuals.
It is essential to find employment or volunteer placements for individuals with ASD that match their interests and skills. Individuals with ASD also need to secure opportunities that match their distinct needs (Gal, Landes, & Katz 2015). To match the individual to the best environment for them, an assessment must be done. The individual’s skills, strengths, behavioral challenges, social skills, and unique characteristics must be considered in this process. In addition, preferred activities, settings, and tasks should be considered when placing individuals in potential employment environments. This process is challenging for individuals with disabilities, as they may not be able to communicate their opinions, preferences, and wishes. Furthermore, some individuals may not yet be ready for employment; more skills training and adjustment may be required before viable employment is possible in the community.
Although the opportunity to work is very important for all individuals, there are a plethora of volunteer opportunities that may provide individuals with an entry-level introduction to various job skills and potential employment opportunities. It has been demonstrated that volunteer opportunities provide individuals with training that cannot be replicated in a day program by virtue of the environmental restrictions. There are tools and social encounters that can only be trained in real time in the natural environment. Additionally, volunteer opportunities may help the typically developing individuals in those environments to be more accepting and amenable to individuals with disabilities and ASD (Nieto, Murillo, Belinchón, Giménez-de la Peña, Saldana, Martinez & Frontera (2015). This paves the way for more individuals with ASD being afforded opportunities in those settings in the future.
Individuals with ASD are capable of participating in a variety of volunteer opportunities. These may include areas such as sales, cleaning, organizing, pet care, service to others and greeting guests. There are several businesses and agencies like the Red Cross, Homeless shelters, food banks, libraries, animal shelters, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations that are eager to have reliable and supportive volunteers. The training provided at these jobs is easily transferable to other employment sites both in terms of the skill set and social interactions that the individuals may have while delivering, organizing, stocking, and providing animal care. Furthermore, the development of these important socialization skills may then generalize to other social opportunities.
Many individuals with autism rely on routines, thrive on structure, and have a high level of attention to detail. These are valuable traits for any individual in a competitive employment setting. These traits may also be readily displayed during volunteer activities and assignments. Additionally, there is a great sense of self-satisfaction that can be gained by helping others. We have volunteered at homeless shelters, museums, organizations for the elderly, and organizations that support animals. The reward of helping other people is an integral part of volunteering and important for individuals with ASD to experience – as a helper vs. as a recipient of help.
Volunteers with ASD are reliable and steady, and become integral parts of the organizations that they support. This can increase the confidence and skill sets of individuals with disabilities as they move into employment opportunities. The ability to volunteer provides opportunities to build the resumes of individuals with ASD to help them secure employment in the general and competitive workforce. Many volunteer placements turn into employment situations for our learners. Even when they do not, supervisors at these settings might serve as employment references. And in all cases, the volunteer opportunity serves as a step in the move from sheltered employment with familiar staff and settings to independent employment in the community. This bridge can help build skills in a role that is not associated with pay, and which therefore can be more flexible, individualized, and stress-free.
A comprehensive approach to work experience is needed to prepare learners with ASD for ultimate employment. Volunteerism creates a novel way to build work relevant skills in a context that is lower in stress and in expectations. At the same time, it provides an unfamiliar environment outside of the therapeutic setting in which skills can be generalized and further refined. Individuals with lower stamina, challenging behaviors, or emerging skills may have more success in these experiences, as it may allow them to take the necessary time to develop the skills that could help secure later employment. In addition, such experiences sometimes provide social support, social skills opportunities, and increased community involvement for individuals with ASD. It may also enhance the understanding of ASD in these environments and among the employees in that setting, through building relationships with the individual(s) and employees. Such connections advance the dissemination of accurate information about people with ASD. As we consider creative models to equip learners with ASD with skills for adult living, volunteering options should be considered.
Liza Jones, MA, is Director of Adult Day Services at Melmark. Patricia A. Finney Schulman, EdS, BCBA, is Administrator of Program Services at Melmark New England. Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D, is Executive Director of Research at Melmark.
The mission of Melmark is to serve children, adults and their families affected by a broad range of intellectual disabilities. With service divisions in Berwyn, Pennsylvania and Andover, Massachusetts, we provide evidence-based educational, vocational, clinical, residential, healthcare and rehabilitative services, personally designed for each individual in a safe environment of warmth, care and respect. For more information, please visit www.melmark.org and www.melmarkne.org.
Gal, E., Landes, E. & Katz, N. (2015). Work performance skills in adults with and without high functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASD). Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 10, 71-77
Nieto, C., Murillo, E., Belinchón, M., Giménez-de la Peña, A., Saldana, D., Martinez, M. & Frontera, M. (2015). Supporting People with autism spectrum disorders in leisure time: Impact of a university volunteer program, and related factors. Anales de Psicologia, 31(1), 145-154