According to recent data, just 15% of autism spectrum adults have full-time jobs, and 7 years after high school, 1/3 of young ASD adults still have no paid work experience. Many of those who are employed have checkered work careers, going from one job to another with long periods of unemployment.
A State’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is designed to help all disabled people become gainfully employed. Vocational Rehabilitation counselors are trained to evaluate the individual’s vocational strengths and weaknesses, and provide assistance. However, most VR programs aren’t equipped to serve individuals with ASDs, and few VR professionals understand the special needs of those with neurological or social handicaps. Because these individuals are intelligent and articulate, their skills and abilities obfuscate their need for supports and services – until they fail. When adults on the autism spectrum seek assistance in obtaining and maintaining employment, they often find that what little help is available doesn’t meet their needs. Often, VR agencies want to place people in unskilled, entry-level jobs, rather than jobs commensurate with the person’s educational achievement.
Some adults on the spectrum report that the VR counselors they saw felt their employment problems were due to a poor attitude and other personality characteristics rather than to a disability. Others described their lifelong troubles, like difficulty working smoothly with others, and were told everyone has those problems. For Laurie, “Everything VR offered was dependent on speed, required the ability to multi-task and the ability to think on one’s feet” – the very things she has difficulty doing.
Steve describes his experience with the state VR Office: “They would help me look in the classifieds and send resumes to different places. It was kind of bizarre that, for three years, they kept asking me what type of job I was looking for!” He had a few interviews, but with meager results. Finally they said his time was up.
“They didn’t have any connections,” Steve continued. “It’s their job to help people like me, but they can’t do it. They had a program that would pay my wages for the first three months on a new job, but even promoting that, we couldn’t find anything.”
When VR sent him for a vocational assessment, Steve complained the tests weren’t vocational and didn’t test his computer aptitude or other skills. His complaints were interpreted as a lack of cooperation, and he was removed from the VR program. He felt betrayed. “I met with those counselors every week… not one of them has called me to see how I’m doing. One day they’re on your team, helping you, rooting for you. The next day they won’t talk to you; they just say they can’t help you any more, you’ve exhausted the funding and you’re on your own. They can help a disabled person get a janitorial type job, but they don’t have a clue how to help someone who has a college degree, yet has a disability like Asperger’s. The business community wants young people fresh out of college, with no problems or weak areas. Something needs to be done to close the gap between the charitable organizations that help people find work and the business community.”
Steve’s experiences with VR are not uncommon for individuals with ASD. State VR agencies are used to dealing with mentally retarded individuals who can be placed in low level jobs like dishwashers or janitors. They also are able to help those with physical limitations, who can be employed with the use of accommodations like wheelchair ramps. But they’re clueless how to help individuals with neurological dysfunctions like Asperger’s, who are intelligent and have college degrees but have difficulty with work environments that cause sensory overload, are fast paced, production oriented, and socially demanding. Their deficient understanding is a function of a numbers-driven system, giving jobs to folks who are more adaptable, easier to accommodate, and provide a less complex challenge.
Intelligent, articulate ASD individuals can experience workplace success with appropriate vocational supports from well informed providers. Without meaningful supports, however, they will continue to struggle and fail.
Often, adults with ASD obtain VR services for other disabilities – like anxiety or depression. Nina’s therapist referred her to VR based on problems caused by PTSD. She recalls: “My ASD sensory overload problems aggravated my tendencies to have PTSD flashbacks. VR sent me to a course, associated with a local community college. At first, the teachers didn’t understand why I kept pestering them with so many questions. They almost kicked me out of the program and told me I needed a job coach to learn how to function in class. So VR provided me with a job coach. With the combination of great counselors and an excellent training program, I had a very positive experience. I was able to pass the program, learned computer programming and eventually found a job. I got fired from this job about 4 1/2 years later. VR helped me find my current job with a federal agency. They offered job coaching when I needed it. I have now worked for the same agency for over 10 years and am completely financially independent. I do wish that my ASD issues had been recognized earlier. Not screening for ASD was one of the failings of my VR program, but it’s understandable because most counselors don’t know a lot about ASD. I couldn’t understand my own behavior, my tendencies to burst out, asking questions, and having ‘mini-meltdowns.’ However, because of my PTSD diagnosis, I did end up getting decent services which helped me attain and keep a job.”
At 38, Sheldan has worked before but has trouble in team environments and doesn’t always move as quickly as others want him to. Frustrated with the length of time it’s taking to get skills that make him employable, he struggles a bit with his college classes. He has a strong need to do useful work and his VR counselor has picked up on that.
She is available, friendly, patient, kind, yet firm with Sheldan, attempting to get him to be more proactive. She explains things to him, and always stays cool, calm, and collected. She is arranging for him to shadow some people who do CNA (nursing) work. There’s a local restaurant chain with a paid two week shadow/work program; that’s another avenue to try. He’s also interested in handyman work, so may do some work for Habitat for Humanity. Hopefully, by the end of summer or early fall, he’ll find something that he can do for a long time.
It is important to acknowledge that autism spectrum disorders are serious conditions which require accommodations in the work setting, and provide those accommodations that allow the individual a measure of accomplishment and success. People with ASD need help finding a work environment where they can succeed, and obtaining leads to jobs in the hidden job market, which aren’t advertised. In order to comply with VR programs, they need very specific, detailed, clearly spelled out expectations.
There is a desperate need for systems-wide training for VR personnel. Vocational counselors, job coaches, and others working with or helping this population must understand this disability and how it affects the VR client. They need to know that a person can go to college, achieve a degree (or two) and still have difficulty with specific tasks required for work. They need to understand that all people with ASD are different. Many are visual learners who, like Sheldan, can benefit from shadowing programs. Others don’t learn by observation and need specific, detailed instructions to carry out a task.
Barbara Bissonnette, Principal of Forward Motion Coaching and author of the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide, has some suggestions for VR counselors working with folks on the autism spectrum. “The most important thing to realize is that these individuals process information differently. They can be easily overwhelmed by too much information, and find many things about job hunting and the workplace confusing. These are concrete, literal thinkers who focus on details and require explicit instruction and examples. You cannot presume that they understand what a job really entails just from reviewing a post, or that they can apply information they read to their particular situation. If tasks aren’t completed, it may be that the steps are too big, or that the individual doesn’t know how to begin. The person might be too anxious to make telephone calls or visit a company to fill out a job application.”
Barbara feels that educating the VR counselor and the employer is critical for better employment outcomes. She explains: “Right now, we’re asking the person with ASD to do all of the adjusting. While nearly everyone can learn and improve skills, someone with ASD is not going to become neurotypical. It’s my experience that when employers understand the ASD profile – especially not to take communication gaffes personally – they are very willing to make modifications.”
Information, education, and training about the strengths and challenges of people with ASD is imperative in order to effectively help individuals on the spectrum to succeed in the workplace. Only then will VR be able to place these valuable, skilled employees in a suitable work setting. If they don’t understand the challenges faced by these people, they won’t be able to explain the individual’s strengths and weaknesses to the employer, ensuring acceptance, understanding, and a good fit.
Yvona Fast is the author of a career guide for individuals with ASD. Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Nonverbal Learning Disability was published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2004. Her website, www.wordsaremyworld.com, has more information. She also works as Support Groups Manager for GRASP (the Global Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership).