In my two professional roles—as an adjunct professor of English composition at a local community college and as a vocational trainer and curriculum developer for adults with autism—I encounter adults at all levels of job readiness. Many of the students in my English composition classes are working adults who are seeking advancement through education; they are sacrificing their time, their money, and their personal lives to secure credentials for professional growth. Many of the adult students who take classes where I teach would prefer not to work, but they must. On the other hand, many of the adults with autism for whom I develop training hold part-time, seasonal, or iterant jobs. Many of the individuals supported at the center where I am employed would prefer to work full-time, but they cannot.
To be frank, students enrolled in colleges and universities have, for the most part, the constitutions and the perseverance to land on their feet regardless of the economies they face. Adults with developmental disabilities, on the other hand, need an extra “boost” in order to compete in a highly-competitive, market-driven economy. The contrasting worlds of employment for college graduates vis-à-vis adults with autism represent an impossibly-complex chasm that service providers strive to bridge.
Straddling these two worlds, I am able to see first-hand how the job market both drives and stalls a person’s opportunities. Individuals—both typically-developed and those with disabilities—who are able and willing to work are, at times, unable to do so; independent adults who don’t want to work—for whatever reason—must in order to keep food in their mouths and roofs over their heads. Straddling these two worlds also helps me see the labyrinth on both sides of the employment market; I see the plight of job seekers and I see the challenge for hiring managers, both of whom need special skills to navigate the maze. Furthermore, as someone committed to advancing opportunities for adults with autism, I see how hard it is to help this group compete with the formally-educated and highly-skilled college graduates who are flooding the job market and are seeking, whether justly or mistakenly, the same types of jobs.
The reality is this: adults with autism and college graduates should not need to compete for the same jobs. There is a vast gap between these two parties’ skillsets. The skills that the average college graduate brings to a career are markedly different from the skills brought to bear by adults with autism; however, each can contribute to a workplace in meaningful ways if given the chance.
About My College Students
The students in the English composition classroom at our local community college fall along a wide spectrum themselves. Some of them are recent high school graduates, aged 18 or 19, but most are older adults returning to school. They are returning to school because they believe getting a formal education will make the difference between working in low-skilled, low-paid labor and securing a high-skilled, well-paying job. Having worked on both sides of the employment field—the low-skilled and the high-skilled—myself, and being in a position, now, that allows me to screen applicants’ resumes and interview potential new-hires, I try as best as I can to give sound, prescient advice about the job search and about one’s early career.
The employment landscape has changed dramatically since my own teachers and counselors sought employment decades ago. According to a Rutgers University study, only 50% of the Bachelor’s degree holding graduates from the class of 2011 secured full-time employment upon graduation. With record unemployment, a glut of applicants, and a dearth of entry-level jobs, the job market is really—to borrow a realtors’ term—a “buyer’s market” where employers have their picks and can choose the best, most-able applicants for each position.
The Skills Hiring Managers Seek
A 2013 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers ranked the top-ten skills hiring managers seek for their new hires. Seven “soft skills” surpass any job-specific, technical abilities on this list; these “soft skills” include the ability to work on a team, make decisions, strategic executive functioning (planning, prioritizing, and organizing tasks), solve problems, and communicate verbally. These are skills, according to employers, that new college graduates most need to demonstrate in order to achieve success in a wide array of career fields; these are the skills, according to employers, that, when clearly demonstrated on cover letters and resumes, will secure interviews for applicants time after time. To repeat, of the top ten skills, the first seven and the last one are not specific to the job, but are “soft skills” and appropriate workplace behaviors.
The good news for recent grads is this: the top skills employers are seeking can be learned and practiced both inside and outside the classroom. Knowing how to plan and prioritize tasks, for instance, is not the domain of one particular major or another. The bad news is this: if one lacks these skills, he’s going to have a really hard time securing well-paid employment.
Adults With Autism Are Not So Different
Adults with autism, at the end of the day, want the same thing all adults want. Regardless of their disability, their impaired social interaction and communication skills, and their areas of perseveration, adults with autism want to live as independently as they can, make decisions for themselves, and contribute to their communities and their societies in a meaningful way. Adults with autism, while needing varying degrees of accommodation in order to achieve these goals, pursue these goals with tenacity.
I know of individuals with autism who have the skills to do many complicated things, such as navigating their own public bus routes from home to work independently; these individuals enjoy the amenities that come along with planning one’s own transportation, such as reading for pleasure, shopping, stopping for coffee, and banking while on their ways to work.
Of course, for every individual with those skills I have encountered, I also know of others whose potentially-aggressive behavior or instances of self-injury (SIB) mask their underlying abilities and make the public bus a dangerous mode of transportation, for themselves and for other riders. Although riding the public bus may be deemed a non-preferred method of transit for some individuals, this should not imply that individuals would not benefit from riding a city bus once in a while.
Give Them a Chance
I have found, after working closely with over 100 adults with autism, those whose work is community-based demonstrate both a more positive affect and fewer anti-social behaviors than their peers who spend their entire days in the training center where instruction is provided. I don’t have the raw numbers, but anecdotal experience tells me that being within and among the community provides therapeutic benefit; I have seen how juxtaposed behaviors are when individuals return from their community-based job versus when individuals have been in training classrooms all day long.
Of course, as a service provider it has become more and more difficult to secure community-based jobs for the individuals we support. Employers—due to the employment market skewed in their favors—often prefer to give their open positions to recent college graduates in lieu of employing an adult with autism who may be, in their opinions, less predictable, less stable, and less skilled. A few years ago, there was a notion that adults with disabilities could take on the jobs that typically-developing people don’t want to do. Those jobs have all but disappeared.
Within the developmental disabilities world, the “Four F’s” are well-known and often avoided. The adults with whom I work are capable of doing more than food service, filing, flowers, and factory work; if given the chance, their skills can amaze. The challenge, though, is getting these individuals a chance to demonstrate their skills. If employers rely solely on resumes and interviews as the means of assessing an applicant’s skills, most of the individuals I work with will be left out of the pool. While many adults with autism are able to prepare winning resumes and cover letters, and many can even ace an interview, the majority of the individuals with whom I work could not. Because of this, many individuals with autism cannot even get their feet in the door.
Expect the Best
What I have learned over my years as an educator is this: people will surprise you if given the opportunity. This axiom has proven true in the years I have spent supporting adults with autism. The individuals I work with never stop surprising me, but it is because I am open to them doing so. I create opportunities for these individuals to reveal their strengths, talents, and interests. I am open to being surprised. I am expecting to be surprised. And this is the best kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. When given an opportunity to show their skills on a job, most of the adults I have worked with can rise to the challenge. They will often need support and accommodation, but they can rise to the challenge. Of course, they need to be let in the door.
And therein lies the “rub.” When given an opportunity to show their strengths and talents, adults with autism relish the opportunity and rise to the challenge. But—in today’s economy—if employers are only willing to take a chance on the top 5% of job applicants, people with disabilities will neither get the consideration nor the opportunities to reveal their skills. Just as, since the economic downturn, the employment paradigm has shifted from perceived feast to famine, so to must the paradigm shift from “only the best” to “equal opportunity.”
To achieve a truly inclusive society, all stakeholders must be committed to its achievement. And though employers may want only the brightly-polished gems, service providers need to continue pushing so that employers are willing to take diamonds in the rough as well. Adults with autism can be those “diamonds in the rough” and service providers can try to build this population’s technical skills, but employers need to be willing to go out on a limb as well. Meeting half way will be mutually rewarding.
Matthew Ratz, MEd, is a vocational trainer for adults with autism. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.harnessthepromise.com.
Godofsky, J., Zukin, C., and Van Horn, C. (2011). Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy. Retrieved from http://www.heldrich.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/content/Work_Trends_May_2011.pdf.