In 2013, a study published by Professor Paul Shattuck, then at Washington University, reported on the outcomes for young adults on the autism spectrum. From Shattuck’s study, we learned that just over half (53.4 percent) of the young adults on the autism spectrum surveyed had ever worked for pay outside the home, within the first eight years after leaving high school. Only about one in five (20.9 percent) young adults with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) worked full-time at a current or most-recent job. According to Shattuck, these employment rates were significantly less than peers with other disabilities. Yet, in spite of this disheartening news, Shattuck found that 35% of young adults diagnosed with an ASD were obtaining some form of post-secondary education. If young adults with an ASD are obtaining greater levels of education than ever previously experienced, why do their employment prospects continue to be so poor?
Many individuals with disabilities look for employment support with their state’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agency. For 2012, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the US had 117,500 Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors, with an expected growth rate in such jobs of 20% over the next ten years. Yet, while the number of people with disabilities (including autism) continues to grow, the number of applicants for state vocational rehabilitation programs is dropping – 579,305 individuals applied in 2011, down 12.3% from the 660,517 people who applied in 2010, and 15.7% below the 687,958 who applied in 2009. In 2011, state VR agencies reported 175,441 cases closed with a successful employment outcome. At the 2012 level of Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors, that is only 1.5 placements a year per counselor.
At the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP), we believe the unemployment crisis in the autism community is the result of:
- Lack of knowledge by employers of the talents and skills individuals with autism can bring to their workplace;
- Concern by employers about the types of accommodations they will need to make for employees with an ASD;
- Uncertainty by employers about how to find and successfully integrate individuals with autism into their organizations; and
- A need to develop a person AND employer focused approach to placing individuals with disabilities into appropriate, competitive employment.
In large Fortune 1000 companies, the hiring decision includes a number of variables:
- Quality of candidates: Could the person being considered meet the job requirements? How much training would they need, and is the employer capable of providing that training?
- Workforce diversity: Does the candidate bring some form of diversity to the job that will enhance the work environment and work quality of the entire company? Diversity of background, life, and work experiences causes all of us to bring different perspectives to solving the same problem.
- Regulatory/legal compliance: Does the company need to meet certain governmental imposed requirements or guidelines to employ individuals within certain classes (ie: women, minorities, people with disabilities)? Do key customers require the company to meet supplier diversity requirements along these same dimensions? [Note: In 2013, the US Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs implemented a guideline for all federal contractors and subcontractors that their workforce must have 7% of employees be persons with disabilities. A company qualifies as a federal contractor or subcontractor if they have a contract with the Federal government or an agency of the Federal government for $10,000 or more.]
- Brand recognition: Who is the company’s customer base? Does the workforce reflect the characteristics of the company’s customer base, enhancing the company’s reputation in their markets and creating brand loyalty?
- Fulfillment of social mission: What are the social responsibility goals of the employer? Does hiring a particular individual advance the social responsibility goals of the company?
In the private sector these are questions professionals who work in the recruiting field consider when evaluating a job candidate. When the candidate is presented to the hiring manager, the recruiter can speak not only to their technical skills, but also to the intangible benefits that the candidate will offer the company. For vocational rehabilitation to improve its placement rates, this private sector focus on the intangible benefits a candidate brings to the company needs to be considered. But that is not enough.
The challenge of the vocational rehabilitation world includes an element that most private sector recruiters do not encounter – how does one present the benefits and challenges of a potential employee’s disability in a way that the employer can understand and feel confident about being able to accommodate? For individuals on the autism spectrum, the challenges themselves can be very different for each person, both in their nature and severity. In order to engage employers in hiring individuals with an ASD, the vocational rehabilitation system needs to become a partner with the business world, providing a full service solution to including people with autism in their organizations.
At ASTEP, our mission is to increase the quality of life for individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism (HFA) through suitable and sustainable employment. Our goal is to be the bridge between individuals with AS/HFA, the professionals and organizations that support them and employers. ASTEP strives to open up a highly skilled and loyal, yet untapped, talent pool for employers, resulting in increased employment of individuals with AS/HFA. In working with employers, we see a growing interest in hiring people on the spectrum, a continuing skepticism about their capability to do so successfully, and a desire to work with a partner who supports them through the entire process. With this understanding, ASTEP has created a program to improve the employment opportunities and outcomes for individuals with autism. ASTEP’s end-to-end solution provides an employer with assessment services, education and training tools, recruiting services and ongoing support for employees and managers. This full service model, driven by employers’ hiring needs, should lead to an increase in the placement of people with autism into suitable and sustainable employment.
Each component of this model is equally important in ensuring success for the employee on the spectrum.
- Assessment includes working with employers to examine and develop appropriate job descriptions, evaluating the employer’s hiring needs against each potential candidate’s skills, addressing the non-technical considerations an employer has when hiring, conducting first level screening interviews of candidates, and providing interviewing and onboarding accommodation recommendations.
- Education and training include offering products and services that teach the employer how to recruit, interview, onboard, deliver performance management reviews, address legal and regulatory compliance issues, mitigate hiring risks, and troubleshoot employee relations problems with their employees on the spectrum. It also includes interviewing and social skills training for employees with an ASD, to help individuals function better in the workplace.
- Recruiting is focused on presenting highly qualified candidates for each position the employer needs filled. ASTEP serves as the bridge between the professionals and organizations supporting individuals on the spectrum and the employers, to source qualified candidates.
- Ongoing employment support, for both the employee on the spectrum and their employer, is the glue that makes this model strong. The length of support needed will be different for each placement, but everyone involved in that placement needs to be willing to make sure the employee receives the coaching and mentoring they need, and that the employer has a “go to” person who can answer their questions about the employee and how to manage them successfully.
Many vocational rehabilitation organizations have built a robust process around a person-focused evaluation and placement model. This is critically important in making sure the individual is placed in a job that is appropriate for their skill sets and interests. It is equally important, however, to build an employer-focused placement model, which is integrated with the person-focused model, in order to improve the placement rates for individuals with autism.
The Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership (ASTEP) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for individuals with Asperger Syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism (HFA) through suitable and sustainable employment. ASTEP acts as the bridge between individuals with AS/HFA, the professionals and organizations that support them and employers. ASTEP strives to open up a highly skilled and loyal, yet untapped, talent pool for employers, resulting in increased employment of individuals with AS/HFA. For more information on ASTEP please visit our website at www.asperger-employment.org.