Employment is a socially normative activity that is a key factor in adult life and successful community inclusion (Fussell & Furstenberg, 2005). Paid employment contributes greatly to quality of life outcomes including economic and social wellbeing, enhanced self-esteem, positive health outcomes, and is often a gateway to health insurance (Roux et al., 2013). However, employment is one of the most fundamental challenges for adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While there is increasing focus on the need for more varied employment preparation and vocational options, there is a dearth of programs working to address the need, especially given the many adults who are looking for work. According to the Current Population Survey the employment rate for individuals with disabilities was 18.6%, considerably lower than the 63.5% rate for persons without disabilities (Office of Disability Employment Policy, 2010).
In addition to the lack of training programs for transition age youth with ASD, numerous studies have found that adults with ASD experience unique challenges in gaining and maintaining competitive employment (Barnhill, 2007). Research has shown that individuals with ASD report difficulty in negotiating social relationships, maintaining jobs, finding a vocational niche, and obtaining work that is commensurate with their ability levels rather than being underemployed (Frith, 2004; Hurtbutt & Chalmers, 2004; Tantam, 2000a). In order to provide another option to support adults with ASD in their job search efforts, The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs at the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) began Project EAARN Employment Boot Camps.
Project EAARN (Employment for Adults with Autism Resource Network) is UM-NSU CARD’s employment initiative which includes providing training and assistance to employers, job seekers, and other professionals interested in improving employment outcomes for individuals with ASD. Three years ago, UM-NSU CARD began Project EAARN Employment Boot Camps. These experiences provide one-week intensive programming that focuses on helping adults gain and maintain employment. With support from the Sam Berman Charitable Foundation, clinicians began the process of recruiting and designing a program that would give job seekers the information and experiences they need to be more knowledgeable and successful in their job search.
There are many skills needed to search for appropriate jobs, apply for those jobs, interview with potential employers, interact with individuals at a job site, and follow-up with potential employers. An additional set of skills is needed to maintain a job if one gets a job offer. These skills can include handling feedback, interacting with co-workers and supervisors, asking for help at work, disclosing a disability, and much more. When putting together the curriculum for Project EAARN’s Employment Boot Camp, the team carefully chose how and what skills to target in order to truly make an impact for the participants. They ultimately decided to focus on personal care, creating a resume, interview skills, money management, and social skills in the workplace.
Each potential participant was screened for appropriateness of fit to be a part of Project EAARN’s Employment Boot Camp. The group is typically about 8-10 adults with an autism spectrum disorder, all of whom are registered UM-NSU CARD constituents. Eligibility criteria include motivation to work, a functional form of communication, participation in the entire week-long program, and transportation to and from the various locations. Participants completed an Interview/Resume Builder which helped participants think about their past experiences, strengths, difficulties, and future plans. This informed the facilitators who assisted the participants in creating tailored resumes and interview responses that matched their unique strengths and qualities.
The program runs out of two sites, the University of Miami (UM) and Nova Southeastern University (NSU). In addition to workshops, a key feature of the program is its ability to take advantage of the unique resources available through each location. CareerSource one-stop centers provide workshops and resources at both locations covering resume development and online job-searching. In addition, each year Nova Southeastern University has graciously allowed the group to use their shuttle system, the Shark Shuttle, to transport participants and facilitators to community locations throughout the week. This allows for greater outreach into the community, enabling the adults to connect with community employment resources which they can continue to access when the program is complete. Additionally, during the lesson on wellness a professor of physical therapy, Dr. Melissa Tovin talks about the importance of taking care of one’s health and her graduate students pair with participants to create individualized work out plans. Adults in the program are also able to access the Alvin Sherman Library on campus and learn how to use the job search resources available to the public.
At the University of Miami there are also numerous resources available. After some instruction on safety in the community from Coral Gables Police Department representative, Lt. Bart Barta, and travel training from clinical staff, the group uses the Metrorail system to navigate the local community. The lack of transportation poses a significant challenge to employment so learning how to use public transit and be safe doing so are valuable skills. They also have the opportunity for hands-on learning at campus locations such as the Bank United Center and the Patti and Allan Herbert Wellness Center, where they experience some of the types of jobs that are available.
A variety of topics are covered over the course of the week. Personal hygiene, self-care, and the importance of work-appropriate dress are discussed. During one activity the group goes to the local mall and works in pairs to complete a scavenger hunt. They are asked to identify work appropriate attire for different settings while staying within budget and a prize is awarded. Many of the participants have never shopped for their own clothes so learning how to budget and look for sales was a challenge for some. Workshops about money management and motivation for job seeking also helped participants make a clear connection between motivations and goals.
One of the most important aspects of the program is the focus on resume development and practicing interview skills. During an interview workshop direct instruction and video modeling are used to teach adults how to prepare for an interview and then develop responses to several commonly asked interview questions. It also includes a discussion on considerations for disclosing one’s disability. Interviewing is a difficult skill to master since interviews can be unpredictable and include a heavy reliance on social skills, a common deficit among individuals with autism. Individualized answers to common interview questions are developed, followed by role plays and mock interviews. The participants receive feedback based on a rubric which highlights strengths as well as opportunities to improve. This information can be used to inform continued practice. Most adults in the program have never participated in practice interviews and the experience makes them aware of how much preparation they may need for actual interviews.
On the final day the group participates in a discussion about social skills at work. They learn about the art of small talk, accepting feedback, asking for help, and coping with stress at work. The week typically ends with a celebration at a site in the community where the group not only uses the social skills they learned, but also have fun in a less structured environment. During this time they have the opportunity to exchange contact information so friendships that were started can continue beyond the group.
Program facilitators have seen great improvements from the participants in their level of confidence, understanding of the job search process, and an increase in prosocial behaviors. However, once participants completed the program, there was a need to consistently track progress and provide follow-up support. A Job Club was formed to support adults who completed the program. This new group allows participants to share job search strategies, learn about networking, continue to work on resumes, practice interviewing skills, set career goals, and maintain a positive outlook.
Through the Project EAARN Employment Boot Camp and Job Club, The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs at UM-NSU CARD are working to address some of the issues related to employment for adults with autism. Employment preparation that extends beyond the hard skills necessary to do work tasks is becoming a greater priority for anyone invested in better outcomes for adults. The autism community continues to increase employment opportunities for adults with autism. Programs such as these provide a learning experience while connecting participants to local resources, bringing more awareness, and creating community ambassadors for the cause.
Deborah Chin, MA, is a Manager and Alexis Bitting, MSEd, is a Case Manager at The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs at the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. For more information, contact The Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Programs at UM-NSU CARD at: 1-800-9-AUTISM ext. 1 or visit www.umcard.org.
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