Locating a place of employment is one of the most prevalent challenges for an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, according to a study conducted in 2010 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 21% of all adults with disabilities participated in the labor force as compared with 69% of non-disabled adults (www.autism-society.org/about-autism/facts-and-statistics.html). This is a truly alarming statistic, and with a projected 625% increase in adults (over the age of 22) with ASD in the next 16 years, these unemployment numbers will rise if the current trend continues.
What we must remember is that these individuals with ASD require valuable work experience to round out purpose and significance in their lives while being able to earn a meaningful wage, just as individuals without disabilities do.
To approach this escalating matter, there are ways for individuals to find employment fitting for each and every person. The importance of a responsive and accepting culture to address this need is imperative in order to develop opportunities, and fortunately, there is a growing interest among the population in effective employment program models and in employment opportunities. What is unique about the American culture, however, is its technical and corporate culture, which results in specialized employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. This isn’t the same case with areas outside of the United States where people with disabilities are incorporated and accepted into the workforce more – oftentimes employed in less technical and more diversified jobs.
For parents, clinicians, teachers, and loved ones of individuals with ASD who are looking for employment options for the individual, I recommend the below process be put into action in order to find the best opportunity for the person at hand:
- Assess the individual by taking a strength-based approach
- Find the job based on the person’s strengths and interests
- Analyze the job
- Prepare the individual
- Prepare the employer and other employees
- Expand upon growth
Start with a strength-based approach – or the notion of identifying a person’s talents and abilities and utilizing or building upon them for growth. This method of pinpointing what a person is good at or enjoys and connecting that to an employment opportunity harnesses success for both the individual and the employer, just like it does in the workplace for employees who are not disabled. Through thorough assessment, I have seen many individuals with ASD have unique and differing skills that can carry over into the workplace. For instance, if a person has good motor skills, they may be great in the area of fashion (assembling garments) or jewelry making. An individual with great upper strength would likely excel in physical work such as farm work, construction, or the lumber industry.
Many individuals with ASD or other disabilities find their jobs through many of the same means as people without disabilities. Job search engines like Monster, Career Builder, Craigslist, and so forth, are common places to narrow down and locate a possible job. Another excellent way to seek out a job is through family, friends, and acquaintances. These are sometimes the best ways to finding a job where the individual may already have experience with the company, such as a local supermarket, library, or school. What is most important is connecting the assessment of the person with a fitting job and having a compassionate culture willing to offer jobs to open up opportunities for individuals.
Once you have a good sense of the analysis of the person and what the job may be, it is important to break down the scope of the job so you can begin priming the individual. I encountered a situation recently that is a great example of how to break down the context and social circumstances to best prepare the person. The individual with ASD involved, Ethan*, had the opportunity to work at an organic farm. The farmer was open to having Ethan work on the farm, but Ethan’s parents were unsure if their son would be beneficial. I went to the farmer and asked what tasks Ethan would be fulfilling – which included weeding, watering plants, waiting on people who visited the farm, retrieving eggs, and other farm tasks. This allowed me to build an inventory to go back and begin working with Ethan. Ethan and I began simulation work with borrowed materials from the farm, including:
- Imitating tasks that Ethan would be performing on the farm to familiarize him with the processes and allow him to feel comfortable.
- I took video of the farm to familiarize Ethan with the land, tools, people and area.
- We used narrative-based instruction by talking through the responsibilities and having Ethan recite them aloud.
- We practiced video self-modeling to record Ethan performing the tasks, such as taking a plant out of a pot and pre-soiling, and I played the video back to Ethan so he would become confident in his abilities.
- With talking photo albums, we inserted photos of the farm into sleeves and put them in the talking photo album to get a sense of the other people employed.
Once the individual is comfortably prepared to being working, the co-workers and employer need to be prepared as well. It is safe to assume that many co-workers do not understand ASD or what to expect. Through education, co-workers can understand whom the individual is, the best way to communicate with them, and things to do or not do. While some people might be rude or socially ostracizing, managing expectations through education helps prepare all parties involved.
As the person becomes more involved in their employment, there are many positive effects and side effects as a result. In Ethan’s case, he made social connections on the farm so that when he went into the community, people recognized him and greeted or spoke with him. This allowed Ethan confidence and comfort within the community to grow. While now receiving a paycheck, Ethan learned how to manage money, use ATM machines, make deposits or withdrawals, and save for things he wanted. Because of his new job, additional opportunities were generated for Ethan. It is important for individuals to identify these potential effects and take action toward them.
Matching the strengths of an individual to a job opportunity and preparing both the individual and co-workers can set the stage for success and support a person with ASD. Although awareness and implantation of this approach currently is low, I have seen this process effectively executed with the support and help of the individual’s family, clinicians and loved ones.
*Name has been altered to protect privacy.
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