Integrated work experiences enhance the quality of life for those living with ASD, reduce financial strain on aging parents, and contribute to the economic development of communities. A lack of supports and low expectations can result in sheltered work experiences, unemployment, and underemployment for people with ASD. Levy and Perry (2011) found the average percentage of individuals with ASD who find work is 24% with job status and stability typically low (Barnhill, 2007; Eaves & Ho, 2008; Howlin, Alcock, & Burkin, 2005). An analysis of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 data found only 27.9% of youth including those with autism were employed (Carter, Austin, & Trainor, 2011). Another study put the percentage of youth with developmental disabilities employed in integrated jobs with competitive wages at only 14.2% (Simonsen, 2010). In this article, we highlight four initiatives, among the many emerging across the nation, working to provide employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities. These include: (a) Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities, (b) Minnesota Life College, (c) Autism Society of Minnesota, and (d) Specialisterne Midwest.
Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities
The Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities (WI-BPDD) is dedicated to improving the independence, productivity, and integration of people with developmental disabilities through projects such as Let’s Get to Work (http://www.letsgettoworkwi.org/). Executive Director Beth Swedeen reports that this project implements practices that elevate community expectations and employment outcomes for youth with disabilities. WI-BPDD’s project promotes working with school sites and communities to implement a coordinated set of evidence-based practices that expand competitive employment in integrated settings.
Participating school sites create school-wide opportunity maps to identify paid and pre-vocational employment opportunities existing throughout the school and community. Starting early in adolescence, person-centered planning is utilized and the project connects families with post-secondary options and resources such as the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Teachers are engaged in this project as they play an integral role in implementing transition programming and providing access to general education and extra-curricular activities related to students’ interests/career goals. Inclusion in general education classes is an important focus, because when students with disabilities are not active in their schools, employers, families, and the larger community have trouble envisioning them as potential workers, thereby reinforcing low vocational expectations (Swedeen, Carter, & Molfenter, 2010; Test et al., 2009). Additionally, inclusive classes and extra-curricular activities provide career possibilities, opportunities to develop skills, and access to connections that open doors to job or volunteer experiences (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine, & Garza, 2006). The schools are identifying opportunities for inclusion and participating in models such as co-teaching in general education classrooms to support students.
Community awareness and involvement is a second focus of the project. By engaging the broader community and decision makers in discussions about employment, WI-BPDD’s project is identifying opportunities for employment. Each school site hosts community conversations that bring together students, employers, family members, community leaders, and school personnel to discuss opportunities for employment. Through collaboration and networking with employers, the schools identify job internship and paid work opportunities. Some schools have created school-based businesses. One school partners with a business that sells student’s art work, while another school gives back to the community through a bicycle recycle program. Several schools have produced public service announcements. As a result of the WI-BPDD project, many more youth are reporting a desire to go to work and more families are educated about integrated employment and the transition process.
Minnesota Life College
Minnesota Life College (MLC) supports young adults after they transition out of high school. MLC believes that work is an essential part of individuals becoming thriving and integrated members of society. According to Executive Director Amy Gudmestad, MLC uses a holistic approach and teaches independent living and work readiness skills, while working to identify each individual’s career interests, strengths, and support needs. MLC identifies these factors through vocational assessment and exploration activities. During a training internship program, participants receive on-going instruction and support for addressing and overcoming a range of workplace related obstacles (e.g., navigating social situations, stress/anxiety management). Participants gain the skills necessary to function within work setting to obtain sustainable employment.
Marissa, a student at MLC, had an extensive work history, but had never found the right job. She and the vocational staff noted that she enjoyed people and had excellent customer service skills. As a result, Marissa obtained a sales associate position and has been employed for two years. At one point, Marissa was told that she would lose her job. With MLC support, Marissa practiced her responses in difficult situations and learned appropriate behaviors during role-play sessions. She worked with staff to write scripts and practice. Initially when Marissa was hired, she did not disclose her diagnosis. Later, with the support of MLC staff, she disclosed her disability and set up accommodations. Today, Marissa works in the busiest department of the store and with accommodations can move to a quieter department when overwhelmed.
Autism Society of Minnesota
Coming from a different angle than those organizations already described, the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) seeks to ensure that attention and community resources are given to employment initiatives for people with autism. Executive Director Jonah Weinberg reports that AuSM is focused on the limited knowledge employers have about autism, and is working to get and keep employers engaged in the potential that the adult autism community can bring to the workforce. At the state level, AuSM has launched partnerships with key government agencies and private businesses with the goal to expand employment opportunities for individuals with ASD.
AuSM is exploring ways to set a standard and a template that companies can follow, in an effort to create inclusive workplaces. AuSM provides opportunities for employers, human resource recruiters and hiring managers to learn about autism through workshops, customized consultation, and an informational booklet (Overlooked Talent: Investing in Employees with Autism). Additionally, AuSM facilitates roundtable discussions and an annual Autism and Employment forum to develop solutions and strategies that can break down barriers to jobs. These forums provide a highly visible platform to highlight and celebrate corporations (3M, Best Buy, Cargill, Target and Walgreens) that are finding ways to proactively incorporate individuals with ASD into their workforce. The Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website hosts “Meet the Future Face of Employment: Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Technology Fields” (www.mnddc.org/asd-employment). The website lists specific actions that individuals can take to facilitate the education, training, and employment processes that result in tech careers for individuals with ASD.
While organizations like WI-BPDD and MLC are preparing individuals for employment and AuSM is working with employers to open doors to opportunities, Specialisterne is supporting individuals on the job through a consultant model. Many individuals with autism have a special aptitude for STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Utilizing individuals with ASD in the technology industry has been successful in Denmark where entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne (http://specialisterne.com/). In this model, individuals with ASD are employees of Specialisterne and consultants in the companies in which they are placed to work. Some companies do not feel equipped or understand how to meet the needs of individuals with special needs. These companies can contract with Specialisterne to fill job positions. Specialisterne matches the unique skill sets of individuals with ASD with businesses who are in need of employees with those skills. This model allows companies to diversify the workforce and get a valuable worker while minimizing their anxiety about supports. Specialisterne makes it possible for individuals with ASD to excel in the workplace.
Specialisterne USA is driving the nationwide expansion of the proven international job creation and employment concept. Sonne, a father of a son with ASD, is partnering with a team in the Midwest. Specialisterne Midwest is headquartered in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and is comprised of Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Sonne, President of Specialisterne USA, believes there is much opportunity in the US to create meaningful and productive jobs for the growing number of people diagnosed with ASD. Specialisterne Midwest branch plans to assess and train people with autism, and then employ them as consultants providing valuable services to corporate clients in sectors including IT, telecommunications, software and science/engineering. Executive director Tony Thomann is moving forward with the first cohort in Fargo North Dakota where consultants will be placed in positions of software testing and quality assurance. This organization has a goal to enable one million jobs globally, and 100,000 jobs in the US, for people with autism.
In conclusion, there are numerous barriers to employment for individuals with ASD. It takes many organizations getting involved and multiple strategies to improve opportunities for employment. The programs highlighted in this article, demonstrate the types of preparation and on-going supports being utilized to enhance employment outcomes for people with autism. Through programs such as the ones described in this article, individuals with autism are being empowered to use their talents and interests to attain and sustain employment.
- Lynn Stansberry-Brusnahan, Ph.D. is Associate Professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Debra Cote, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Cal State Fullerton. For information contact Lynn Stansberry-Brusnahan at email@example.com and Debra Cote at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM), contact Jonah Weinberg, Executive Director at (651) 647-1083, email email@example.com or visit www.ausm.org.
For more information on Minnesota Life College (MLC), contact Amy Gudmestad, Executive Director at (612) 869-4008, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.minnesotalifecollege.org.
For more information on Specialisterne Midwest, contact Executive Director Tony Thomann at email@example.com or visit http://usa.specialisterne.com.
For more information on Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities (WI-BPDD), contact Beth Swedeen, Executive Director at (608) 266-1166, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.letsgettoworkwi.org or www.wi-bpdd.org.
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