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Post-Secondary Educational Models Prepare Individuals with an ASD to Enter the Workforce

In the last 50 years, there have been large changes in the labor market. Many of these changes are related to advances in technology- computers, the internet and a specialization of skills. These have fundamentally changed the educational requirements of many entry level positions. In the recent past, we have witnessed a movement from a manufacturing-based economy to a “knowledge based” economy. The education level of the labor force has increased dramatically.

This is an important trend to watch because unemployment is strongly impacted by educational level. Prior to our current recession, the unemployment rate for young workers who did not complete high school was about 6.4%. For high school graduates, it was about 3.5%. The unemployment rate for individuals with some college credits was about 2.7%. For bachelor’s degree recipients, the unemployment rate was about 1.7% (Congressional Budget Office, 2002). The unemployment rate for people with learning disabilities, in general, is 63% – almost 10 times greater than the general population. Unfortunately, there are no autism-specific unemployment data available. With our current recession, this discrepancy may be even greater than previously documented.

Research suggests that individuals with an ASD will struggle with the developmental tasks at every age (Billstedt, Gillberg, & Gillberg, 2005). Many will have notable difficulty transitioning fully to an adult life that embraces work, personal relationships and independent living (Howlin, Goode, Hutton, & Rutter, 2004; Sperry & Mesibov, 2005). Research shows that about 70-80% (Billstedt, Gillberg, & Gillberg, 2005; Fombonne, 2003) of individuals diagnosed with an ASD at childhood will continue to demonstrate marked cognitive impairment in adulthood.

Changes in the labor economy require any young person to be as educated as possible if they are to access a wide range of occupational choices. Vocational, Supported Academic and Transitional programs are three different post-secondary educational models used to prepare individuals with an ASD to enter the workforce.

Vocational Programs

Within the vocational rehabilitation field there are different kinds of programs. Supported work programs offer the least restrictive environment and are the most appropriate for higher functioning individuals. Supervision is provided by trained staff at an off-site work place.  Supported employment is defined as “competitive work in integrated work setting…consistent with the strengths, resources, priorities, concerns, abilities, capabilities, and informed choices of the individual” (Rehabilitation Act Amendments, 1998). The goal of these vocational programs is to enable the individual to integrate into normal adult functioning in terms of work and relationships, thereby improving his/her quality of life.

Supported employment programs have been found to be effective (Bond et al., 2001; Torrey, Clark, Becker, Wyzik, & Drake, 1997). Very little of this outcome research has been conducted with ASD populations, but instead with individuals living with a mental illness. The characteristics of the effective programs are: helping a client to find paid employment at a work site committed to employing individuals with a disability; providing support to the individual in maintaining his or her job in terms of problem solving and advocacy; and helping the individual to disclose their disability to an employer (Drake, 1998). In the outcome research, psychiatric services are integrated with the vocational service (Becker and Drake, 1993) and, given the high rate of psychiatric co-morbidity within the ASD population, this would be relevant. Supported employment has been found to work better than group skills training, sheltered workshops, and other vocational services (Lehman et al., 2002, McFarlane et al., 2000) with competitive employment rates as high as 78% over 1 to 2 years for supported employment (McGurk & Mueser, 2004).

Supported Academic Programs

For individuals who have the ability and interest in a college degree or certificate programs, there are supported academic programs. Most of the research has found that for these students to succeed, they will require some type of remedial services (Cowles & Keim, 1995; Strichart & Mangrum, 1985). With a legislative mandate, all universities and colleges must provide reasonable accommodations to any student determined eligible. However, there is a tremendous range in the level of support made available. The variation rests likely on budgetary considerations, but also on differences in each institution’s interpretation of their requirement to provide “equal access” to the educational experience. Assistance can range from general workshops in study skills to multi-faceted individualized programming.

There are two general approaches to the kinds of programs utilized by post-secondary academic institutions (Rath & Royer, 2002): those that attempt to modify behaviors and/or skills of the student and those that attempt to modify the environment to accommodate the student. There is much debate over the relative merits of each approach that abut issues of student ability, responsibility and the extent to which college education is a privilege (Navicky, 1998). Unfortunately, there is not a body of evidence examining the effectiveness of either approach.

Although many individuals with an ASD have the intellectual ability to succeed in a post-secondary academic environment, they often fail because these programs are unable to design interventions to ameliorate the students’ impairments in social skills and executive functioning. The college experience is more than the academic classes. It includes living in a dorm, managing one’s own schedule, eating in cafeterias, and meeting a wide array of people. Furthermore, there is very little direct connection between course content and the skills necessary to obtain and maintain a job.

Transitional Programs

Transitional programs combine elements of both vocational and academically supported program models. They permit students with an ASD to learn job specific social skills, independent living skills, and academic skills necessary to complete a degree. Students may or may not leave with a bachelor’s degree depending on the program and the student. Most programs include 4 primary components: (1) supported employment and work skills training; (2) adult life skills training including financial management, grocery shopping, laundry, and home maintenance; (3) social and personal relationships counseling and training, and; (4) encouraged social involvement in the community. Transitional programs offer students with an ASD interventions that directly impact their areas of weakness and provide the most hope for successful employment.

Dr. Ernst VanBergeijk, is the Associate Dean and Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology’s Vocational Independence Program. He is also a research associate at the Yale Child Study Center’s Developmental Disabilities Clinic and is assigned to the autism unit. The publication of this article was made possible by a grant from the National Institute of Health, LRP grant (Number, L30HD053966-01).

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