Each year 50,000 students on the autism spectrum reach 18 years of age. They are at a crossroads. Should they continue their education at their high school? Is pursuing a two or four-year college degree an appropriate pathway to the world of work and independent living? Or should they enroll in a vocational program to receive job specific training? Many are not ready to enroll in a degree bearing program or a vocational certificate program. Those that are not quite ready to move into either the world of work or higher education may consider at transition program.
Without some sort of intervention, the employment statistics for students on the autism spectrum are rather grim. Most of these numbers are anecdotal in nature. The highest employment rates from these reports are somewhere around 34% to 56% (Howlin, Goode, Hutton, & Rutter, 2004; Eaves & Ho; 2008). Other reports suggest the employment rate for individuals on the autism spectrum is less than 10% (Taylor & Seltzer, 2011). What are effective interventions to prepare students on the spectrum for employment?
Since 1987, the Vocational Independence Program (VIP) at the New York Institute of Technology’s (NYIT) Central Islip Campus in Long Island, NY, has been invested in the placement of young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), which includes Asperger’s Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Learning Disabilities in employment internships. VIP prides itself on giving these young adults the tools necessary to become successful, independent members of society and in the workplace through life and social skills coaching and vocational training.
Finding the right career field and position for these young adults is not an easy task, but is a key predictor of success or failure of their future lives. According to a secondary analysis of the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NTLS2), data revealed, “…whether the child graduated from high school, whether the child received career counseling during high school, and whether the child’s school contacted postsecondary vocational training programs or potential employers were the significant factors associated with participation in employment” (Chang, Cheung , Li, & Tsai, 2013; p. 1832). Having a paid employment experience either during high school or shortly thereafter is another key predictor of employment after leaving high school.
In years past, the philosophy was that these young adults will have to conform and meet the expectations of society and businesses in general. Through the years, experience has shown, combined with the ever-increasing recognition within our society of the many disabilities that exist, that having a disability is not a predictable marker of failure in the workplace. These job placements are opportunities to provide a positive experience for intern and employer, as well as a stepping stone towards a future that conforms to young adults with an ASD as a beneficial part of the workplace.
The challenge is complex on all sides. They include knowing your intern, having your intern understand that he/she has to be productive and responsive to the requests of the supervisor, finding what you think is the right placement among your resources and with the employer you think will give him/her the best opportunity to succeed. That has always been difficult in the traditional choices of entry level positions in most common fields, with the exception of computer competencies, video production, clerical/office work and the arts. In these fields, within your local community, you may have limited opportunities in having suitable positions available. Again, it is quite a challenge.
Although there is a dearth of information on effective job training strategies, the first randomized clinical trial of vocational training as an intervention to increase the employability of young adults on the autism spectrum yielded promising results (Wehman, Schall, McDonough, Kregel, et al., 2014). Graduating high school seniors on the autism spectrum were randomly assigned to a 9 month intensive vocational training program or “a business as usual” control group, meaning they received the traditional transition services provided by the school and the office of vocational rehabilitative services. Employers participating in the study included a hospital, a government complex and a banking center which provided internships sites “in high need, high turnover positions.” Students assigned to the vocational training condition had an 87.5% employment rate after graduation from high school. Students assigned to the control group or “business as usual” condition had a 6.25% employment rate.
NYIT’s VIP is a three year process which requires an integrated approach of independent living, social and vocational skills training. VIP starts students out with the assumption that there is a place for everyone in the workforce – but it takes more than work skills to be successful. The first year introduces the students to the career fields that are available and then evaluates their work readiness. A student can be technically skilled, but not be able to manage their time or personal hygiene. Social skills training are in place for the students to learn effective communication and behavior with peers, coworkers and supervisors.
So, how does one find these “ideal” workplaces? According to an article in the New York Daily News, adults with ASD “are becoming sought-after recruits at a handful of companies where their intense focus, attention to detail and ability to think differently is valued.” (June 4, 2013). Two of those industries include software producers and home financing companies, two areas where we have found success with our interns.
The “green technology” fields are starting to open and are an attractive option for people on the spectrum. In 2009, AHRC in Nassau County, NY, established this program to provide electronics recycling for the metro-NY area. The initial idea was to provide employment for the developmentally disabled and to also be competitive in this growing “green” industry. E-Works™ provides recycling, refurbishment and resale primarily in office electronics like computers, monitors, servers, scanners, copiers, etc. and also any other electronics like TVs, cell phones and video equipment. This company provides multi-level job opportunities including transport, warehousing, auditing, erasing data, repairing, disassembling, sorting and shredding. In addition, they have their own educational and training center where they teach potential employees the skills needed to go right into the job.
Work is not just a paycheck; it is part of our identity and an essential part of a fulfilling and independent life. Comprehensive vocational training along with finding the right employer-worker match provides a pathway to this goal.
Chiang, H.M., Cheung, Y.K., Li, H, and Tsai, L.Y. (2013). Factors associated with participation in employment for high school leavers with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43:1832–1842 DOI 10.1007/s10803-012-1734-2.
Howlin, P., Goode, S., Hutton, J., & Rutter, M. (2004). Adult outcome for children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 212–229.
Taylor, J. L., & Seltzer, M. M. (2011). Employment and postsecondary educational activities for young adults with autism spectrum disorders during the transition to adulthood. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41, 566–574.
Wehman, P.H., Schall, C.M., McDonough, M., Kregel, J. , Brooke, V., Molinelli, A., Ham, W., Graham, C.W., Riehle, J.E., Collins, H.T., and Thiss, W. (2014). Competitive employment for youth with autism spectrum disorders: Early results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 487-500.
Terri White, MPS, is the Director of Vocational Services at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program. The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) Program. Please visit www.nyit.edu/vip for more information.
Author’s Note: The author would like to thank David Krainski, MS, GCDF, Vocational Instructor/Counselor, and Steve Delaney, BS, Job Coach/Vocational Counselor/Instructor, for their suggestions to earlier drafts of this manuscript.