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The Role of the Caregiver in Enhancing Job Skills in Individuals with ASD

When parents think of what they want for their children, a fulfilling job is often included in their answer. Many caregivers want to see that their loved one can not only obtain a job, but maintain it long-term. This tends to be particularly difficult for those on the autism spectrum, as research indicates that long-term employment rates are less than ideal (Lorenz, Frischling, Cuadros & Heinitz, 2016). According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 12.1% of individuals with disabilities are unemployed (BLS, 2015). This is more than twice the national unemployment rate (BLS, 2015). Individuals with ASD and intellectual disabilities continue to battle barriers to employment and often struggle to acquire the necessary job skills needed to maintain gainful employment (Lorenz et al., 2016). Caregivers are often cognizant of these outcomes and many are mindful about how they may contribute to their son or daughter’s job skills; thus increasing the likelihood that he or she will be able to obtain and maintain employment. Recent studies have found the development and acquisition of professional etiquette and soft job skills to be crucial in determining whether an employee will be retained (Scott, Falkmer, Firdler & Falkmer, 2015). Despite having this knowledge, caregivers may still find that the road to employment can be difficult to navigate. They may feel torn between trying to insure that their loved one has a positive work environment and experience, while also not wanting to overstep boundaries and interfere with his or her independence. To be mindful of the latter, it is imperative that caregivers assist in the development of job skills at home.

Various studies have identified which factors are crucial in determining whether a person will be able to maintain employment in the competitive workforce (Scott et al., 2014). Studies have found that having clear expectations, step by step directions, on-site support, a professional presentation and etiquette, and “soft” job skills best indicate whether an individual with ASD will be successful in the workplace (Lorenz et al, 2016; Scott et al., 2015).

Caregivers can play a large role in the development of these skills, many of which can be introduced at home at a young age. The research has found that the earlier these skills are introduced, the more likely the individual is to acquire them and later be employable (Dipeolu, Storlie & Johnson, 2014). Introduction of these skills can begin as early as the toddler years and extend throughout college. For example, when asking a young child to complete a task at home, providing step by step instructions can decrease anxiety and allow the child to find a sense of accomplishment in completing each task. Further, it is recommended that the child be provided with clear expectations (Lorenz et al., 2016). When assigned a task from either a caregiver or an employer, the individual may struggle with anxiety related to the successful execution and completion of the task at hand. However, the knowledge of how to breakdown tasks can serve the individual well. When asking to clean an object in the home, a sink for example, the caregiver can demonstrate what the sink looks like once it’s cleaned so the child has the visual of what a “clean” sink is. Leaving it up to the child to define “clean” can result in unclear expectations and later, undesirable results. Providing the step by step instructions in the form of a checklist can make instructions clearer and allow the child to transition from one task to the next smoothly (Moyer, 2011). Providing detailed instructions such as to how to clean the object, where to clean, and what cleaning ingredients to use can simplify what may appear as an overwhelming task. Providing these visual supports and mirroring the task can reduce anxiety and provide direction, which increases the likelihood of the task being finished successfully (Moyer, 2011). As the child grows, they may reasonably be expected to take on more complex tasks and mimic what an employer may expect of them in a paid position. Having already developed the skill of breaking down an assignment into step-by-step tasks and identifying the end result will serve them well in a traditional work environment.

It is also beneficial to coach the individual on how to manage unexpected situations. Often the stress of a transition or unexpected occurrence can contribute to difficulties in self-regulation, particularly in those with ASD (Moyer, 2011). Poor self-regulation during an unanticipated work event can hinder job performance and at its worst, result in termination. Practicing how to respond appropriately in these situations can begin in the early years. While these skills may already be developing for school settings, a caregiver can demonstrate how an employer may expect their staff to respond in a professional setting. Identifying possible stressors and coping mechanisms can reduce the likelihood of inappropriate responses and behaviors in the workplace. Often these can be similar to the coping mechanisms the child is utilizing in his or her school setting. Problem-solving skills will be useful in the world of work, as employees are likely to encounter issues which need to be resolved quickly and without as much assistance (Scott et al., 2015). Being mindful of stimuli in any potential work environment is helpful as well, as an environment with a lot of sensory stimuli can cause a distraction and influence the individual’s ability to complete the tasks as assigned. Identifying how the child or young adult can manage an uncomfortable transition or distraction at work can help decrease anxiety, resulting in a more comfortable and confident employee.

Additionally, difficulty navigating social interactions in the workplace continues to hinder the work performance of employees with ASD (Lorenz et al., 2016). An individual’s ability to professionally communicate verbally and nonverbally with their supervisors and colleagues greatly influences the likelihood of maintaining employment, particularly amongst those with ASD (Brown & DiGaldo, 2011). Further training in these areas can be provided by demonstrating how interactions differ in the workplace versus between friends or acquaintances. Role-playing these interactions and allowing the child to see how social and professional interactions differ can be helpful in teaching professionalism. Practicing how an employee might approach a customer or a supervisor can be done via role-plays and by displaying the appropriate behavior. These interactions should be practiced often to instill positive, professional behaviors in the same way that mock interviews may later be utilized.

Further, sharing experiences from one’s own professional environment can expand the child’s knowledge of the expectations at work versus at home or at school. It can be confusing for a child or young adult to determine why some behaviors are unacceptable in a work environment, but are fine in others. Providing examples as to who and what constitutes a professional can also enlighten the child to know what “being professional” actually means. This is especially important in terms of mirroring appropriate professional dress and hygiene. The child can practice identifying different styles of professional dress and its purpose.

Identifying the roles of employees at frequented establishments can begin to show a child what responsibilities are expected of staff and how the establishment is run with the support and work of each and every employee. The goal should be to generate excitement over future work opportunities and teach children and young adults about the value of all positions. It is recommended that caregivers pose questions to the child to generate thoughts about why the employees behave the way they do. Asking why a server checks in mid-meal or why a sales associate asks if help is needed can generate discussions on what it means to be an employee. What is their role? This can also be a time to discuss the important of “soft” job skills, such as punctuality, a positive attitude, and work ethic. A child may be asked what he or she thinks might happen if their waiter or waitress took a long break while working or what might happen if a store’s staff were late to open the store. Understanding the cause and effect of these actions can further introduce the important of soft job skills and how they affect others. Providing feedback and praise to a child who can identify staff members and how they contribute to the business is likely to result in positive feelings about the workforce. Thinking early on about possible job interests can make planning for the future that much easier.

While navigating the path to employment can be challenging at times, caregivers can provide support beginning early on which can be continued as their loved one prepares to enter the competitive workforce. While the statistics on employment for those with disabilities can be daunting, the research also indicates that the acquisition of business etiquette, task-by-task checklists, and soft job skills greatly influence whether an individual will remain successfully employed (Scott et al., 2015; Lorenz et al., 2016). By promoting these skills early on, caregivers can provide support and take additional steps towards the future success of their loved one.


Kelly Imperial, MS, is the Director of Employment Training Services at the New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). She may be reached at kimperia@nyit.edu.


Brown, J., & DiGaldo, S. (Presenters). (2011). Post-secondary and career issues faced by individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Lecture presented at Annual meeting of the Connecticut Career Counseling and Development Association, Hartford, CT.

Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics summary [Fact sheet]. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm

Dipeolu, A., Storlie, C., & Johnson, C. (2014). College students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder: Best practices for successful transition into the world of work. Journal of College Counseling, 18(2), 175-190.

Lorenz, T., Frischling, C., Cuadros, R., & Heinitz, K. (2016). Autism and overcoming job barriers: Comparing job-related barriers and possible solutions in and outside of autism-specific employment. PLoS ONE, 11(1).

Moyer, S. (2011). Building foundational skills now to improve employment outcomes in the future. Retrieved June 1, 2016, from Pathfinders for Autism website: http://www.pathfindersforautism.org/articles/view/building-foundational-skills-now-to-improve-employment-outcomes-in-the-future-strategies-for-parents-of-children-with-autism-spectrum-disorder

Scott, M., Falkmer, M., Girdler, S., & Falkmer, T. (2015). Viewpoints on factors for successful employment for adults with autism spectrum disorder. PLoS ONE, 10(10).

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