National Labor Statistics as well as a recent National Longitudinal Study (see analysis at www.communityinclusion.org/article.php?article_id=341) show disappointing employment outcomes for individuals with autism. For example, less than half were employed at the time of the study compared to over 90% of the general population. Those who were still employed tended to be low-paid and received few benefits such as paid sick or vacation leave, or retirement benefits. Individuals with autism who do get hired are more likely to get fired because, by definition, they possess many of the traits (e.g., not getting along with co-workers or supervisors) rated as among the top reasons anyone might lose a job.
Research also points to the conclusions that, without work, individuals with autism experience the same loneliness and poor life outcomes (e.g., poverty, poor physical and mental health) as neurotypical people do. Yet we know that, when an individual’s skills are matched to an employer’s needs, and employers and co-workers understand and accept what may appear to be a “trade-off” between a high “degree of individuality” and exceptional technical skills, everyone benefits (Jordan, 2008, Supporting Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Quality Employment Practices, Institute for Community Inclusion Issues Brief #25).
Although school districts are responsible for assuring a smooth transition from “school days” to “pay days” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments 1983, 1990 and 1997), many are unable to do so because of other issues (e.g., emphasis on academic achievement or liability concerns about providing transportation to off-site work experience situations). As such, many need outside help from programs such as the Roses for Autism (RFA) Career Training Program (CTP) located in Guilford, CT.
When the concept of RFA evolved in 2009, it had the added benefit of keeping the 4th generation Pinchbeck Rose Farm operating. But the concept primarily met a critical service need by combining RFA’s agricultural purpose with an evidence-based, inclusive CTP for transition-aged and young adults with autism. As a real business, varied opportunities to find and build on individual strengths in an existing competitive environment are coupled with professional instruction using evidence-based practices so that each individual can reach his/her Career Training Plan goals and objectives seamlessly. And, although its original focus was agricultural, in practice there are numerous career tracks available to participants related to RFA operations. These include production, e-marketing, retail, and delivery among niche opportunities expanded to meet individual interests.
At RFA, we hold the following vision for all teenagers and young adults:
- Autistic students complete their academic programs at the same time as their chronological peers. Prior to graduation, they may hold part-time jobs. Those who are going directly into the workforce have the supports they need to succeed.
- Autistic students who require additional career training are evaluated in real-life employment settings by experts who can help them identify career goals and objectives consistent with their strengths, interests and needs. Post-evaluation, these individuals have a portfolio of what jobs they can perform and what supports and accommodations they might need. This portfolio may focus for some on components of jobs known in the field as “job carving.” Those who need more work experience in real job settings have the time they need to get it. Others go directly into existing job vacancies. All become successfully employed eventually. Additionally, individuals who seek continued education get the support they need to be successful returning students for personal growth and development or for career changes.
- Employers and employees (those with ASD and their co-workers) get ongoing support when required so that employment is successful. Corporate consulting services are also available to build future employment opportunities and to assure that employees with autism are valued members of each work setting by applying autism specific strategies and an inclusionary ambiance in the work place.
- State of the art Assistive Technology or other innovations are available to increase independence and improve peoples’ lives as needed. Everybody has the right to communicate using, if necessary, augmentative communication and, if behavioral challenges occur, individuals receive highly trained and sensitive positive behavior supports reflecting their neurological differences, health, and communication needs.
- When people are employed their quality of life improves particularly with respect to meaningful social connections with others in their communities including coworkers, neighbors, and friends. These connections extend beyond the work day to include community recreational opportunities, leisure activities based on interests, and faith communities. Natural relationships are built and supported so each individual is surrounded by a loving and supportive circle of friends, relatives, and colleagues so that, long term, lives are satisfying to each autistic individual and have meaning. Family members are supported in developing new relationships with their adult family members with autism that facilitate optimal independence balanced with safety.
- Individuals have the skills and/or supports they need to make quality informed choices that are beneficial to them in the short and long term. All supports are culturally sensitive and respectful of individual rights and privileges.
RFA strives to enable participants to realize this career-oriented vision by providing career training and in vivo social opportunities to participants, including part-time enrollment for students not yet done with their academic program). We use a person-centered framework that, in addition to MAPS or PATH or other similar strategies (c.f. CT’s Department of Developmental Services Individual and Family Fact Sheet, http://www.ct.gov/dds/cwp/view.asp?a=2050&q=382266), recognizes the unique neurological differences each participant experiences in terms of movement, anxiety, communication, and sensory differences (i.e., the “MACS” approach).
“MACS” is based on the current understanding of autism as a complex neurological condition (Rammler, 2009) and emerging outcome evidence that supporting autism from this perspective helps streamline the selection of which evidence-based practices work best for any one individual and which are likely to work for many. For example, visual supports outlining components of the business operations facilitate motor planning for complex, competitive technical tasks – as well as alleviate anxiety. Opportunities for a wide range of communicative skills (from social chit-chat to asking questions) abound. We can identify potential sensory trouble spots, teach actual skills (e.g., getting proprioceptive input during breaks), teach compensatory strategies (e.g., apologizing for limited eye contact) to overcome these when possible, and/or identify needed but reasonable accommodations (such as natural lighting or more frequent movement breaks) that future employers will need to provide if they value the other assets that an employee with ASD can bring to their business.
Although some individuals who went through the first round of RFA’s CTP were so good at their jobs that they were hired on as employees with the added edge of prior experience at RFA, the intent is for RFA to provide “one stop shopping” services leading to competitive or supported competitive employment elsewhere for each individual. RFA does not function at all as a “sheltered workshop” day program model.
Admission to the RFA CTP is voluntary but primarily on a first-come, first-served basis so that individuals with various manifestations of their autism are not turned down because of neurological complexities. The CTP and farm staff: participant ratios preserve realistic ratios of neurotypical employees to autistic participants as much as possible. This assures an ongoing feedback loop between the operations RFA staff and the qualified and experienced CTP staff. CTP staff provides (or coaches operations personnel to provide) evidence-based instruction in the acquisition of technical skills. Technical skills range from operating a state-of-the-art cash register to developing/managing e-marketing systems to agricultural tasks needed to grow and produce high-quality roses (as well as other flowers). The Hidden Curriculum is taught as needed, and generalized and reinforced immediately.
The goal of the initial evaluation at RFA is to develop a individual career training plan incorporating what the individual’s strengths, interest and learning styles are; how autism affects his/her ability to be employed in a real job setting; what kinds of individualized and reasonable accommodations s/he will need when employed elsewhere; and what technical and “soft skills” the individual will need in the specific type of environment s/he envisions working in once completed with the CTP. On-going evaluation during work experience, job training, community job shadowing, internships, etc., allows the individual to “tweak” his/her career plan – just like neurotypical individuals in this same age group do all the time!
CTP staff also assists participants in developing employment portfolios and may devise alternative interview formats for participants needing these. As stated in our vision, CTP staff prepares employers and co-workers to work and have meaningful relationships with any co-worker with autism. An overarching goal of RFA is to keep the floral business going while applying autism-specific expertise in an inclusive setting so that real transition can occur from “school days” to “pay days.” Stay tuned for progress updates as we replicate our strategies to the many other settings in which neurotypical teenagers and young adults would find themselves!
Linda H. Rammler, MEd, PhD, is Director of Technical Assistance at the UCONN Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. For more information, please visit www.uconnucedd.org.