After college, one is confronted with the confounding world of job searching. Unlike anything one has experienced before, a job search is filled with resumes, cover letters, and interviews, salary negotiations, networking, and writing that looks nothing like the work just finished to earn a degree. As recent media reports indicate, more and more college graduates are un- or underemployed and need to move back home with their parents. And while these “boomerang” anecdotes are frustrating for recent grads, these experiences may be worlds away from the experience of their same-aged peer with autism.
Adults with autism, when they reach age 21, face an entirely different world whose challenges are equally confounding. As students transition out of special education, they move from their teachers being guided by the multifaceted Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) into the world of adulthood where their employers are guided by the narrower Adults with Disabilities Act (ADA). A number of important supports are suddenly stripped away, either a result of a lack of funding (such as speech therapy) or as a result of a lack of legal requirement (such as regular measurement and assessment of skills). Adults with autism at age 21 move suddenly from a world of educators concerned primarily with students’ continued learning and growth to a world of employers concerned instead with adults’ shedding the costly behavioral, emotional, and educational supports to which they have become accustomed.
As a vocational training professional for adults with autism providing vocational training at a community-based autism training facility, I see firsthand the steep drop-off from a learning experience guided by academics and by anticipated and consistent growth to an experience guided by the need for employment based on ill-fitting concepts of adulthood and independence. Instruction that was academically-driven and educationally-necessary at the age of 19 and 20 becomes quixotic in the world of individual finances and self-advocacy at the age of 21 when continued state funding is not guaranteed. Adults with autism, whose disability makes sameness, routine, and environmental control reassuring, are rocketed into environments without clear routines or clear expectations.
All of this serves as a backdrop to where I stand when an adult arrives at my facility. Though I may be clued in to this individual’s behavioral triggers as well as his interests, I do not have the clear, objective-aligned goals of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to guide my work; nor do I have the support of a certified special educator to facilitate instruction. Instead, the individuals I train are supported by direct-support staff—who may have no formal Special Education training —as they build new vocational skills and navigate the extremely complex world of employment. My job is to develop and maintain a library of instructional activities and materials; additionally, as a trained special educator, I aid staff in their presentation and facilitation of these activities to diagnosed individuals.
These vocational training activities in areas of clerical skills, mechanical skills, order fulfillment, and hospitality, among others, run alongside job development which is motivated by the goal of part-time or full-time paid employment for every individual. Regulations vary by state, but adults with disabilities are often required to maintain a minimum number of hours of paid employment or equivalent hours of relevant, hands-on training in order to receive funding under Social Security disability funding. While a part-time workday may not seem that difficult to attain for the average person, it is surprisingly complicated to achieve this for adults with autism, for a variety of reasons. The art and science of job development—distinct from job searching—for adults with autism is remarkably multifaceted, and quite different from the typical job search one might encounter.
One of the keys for supporting adults with autism—and it is a key that unlocks both training and employment opportunities—is to discover areas of strength and interest of the individual. When designing a training activity for an individual, I ask (or reflect on) a series of questions to determine the individual’s level of interest and ability. If the individual is able to verbally answer these questions, it becomes easier to discern areas of strength and interest; if, however, the individual is only partially-verbal or totally non-verbal, then the only method of discovering strengths and interests is trial and error.
This same process of trying multiple things before achieving success can be applied to job development; however the approach must be one of development—actually building a job around the skills, strengths, and interests of the individual. I have observed people rise to the challenge of jobs some thought would be impossible for them; but for every individual with autism who outperforms expectations, several others are terminated for poor performance because the expectations were unrealistic. For the individuals with autism I have worked with, a poor match between the job duties and the individual’s strengths results in several frustrating consequences that extend far beyond mere unemployment.
Job development truly is a science and an art, and it is a pathway that should be pursued well before an individual “ages out” of special education services. Because of the domains autism affects—specifically social communication and a narrow field of interests—helping an adult with autism to find a preferred job vacancy, prepare a winning resume and cover letter, ace an interview, and effectively negotiate a salary is incredibly challenging, especially if the disability’s impact is profound. Instead, an adult with autism’s skills, interests, and personality need to be actively marketed to a potential employer; if an employer is able to “buy in” to an individual’s skills and potential with a company, half the battle is won.
When planning for vocational experiences with adults with autism, it is vital that these areas be considered. By first understanding how services will change or disappear entirely after an individual’s 21st birthday, a parent or provider can effectively fill the gaps. Then, by uncovering an individual’s area of strength and interest, these skills can be better aligned with employers’ needs, and jobs can be developed in a customized way. Throughout the transitional experience, a parent, teacher, or provider needs to remember that although autism is a profound disability, individuals with autism want the same things all people want: to make choices, to earn a living, and to make an impact in the community and the world.