What Can We Do to Prepare Youths with Autism for Employment?

Learning life skills is necessary and needs to start as early as possible.

Posted Feb 05, 2016

Often, I get contacted by parents and professionals trying to help a young adult with autism who is out of school and looking for work. I feel their pain. As a parent of a 27 year old who is trying to develop a career out of painting, I understand. My son's career is getting started thanks to his amazing talent - and  because I am there making it happen for him. His goal is to become a happy taxpayer, appreciated for his talent. 

I have written a series of articles on the topic of preparing for real life in the adult world and especially focusing on employment, and I will be publishing them here over the next few months. I hope you find them useful.

The best way to prepare a person on the spectrum for employment is to start early. That being said, better late than never. Truthfully, not everyone is going to fit into a typical employment model, but they still need those life skills to live in the community and to develop their  interests into other options, possibly self-employment.

My husband and I are fortunate because our son, Jeremy, discovered a talent that we are now figuring out how to market. But we only discovered this talent three years ago, when Jeremy was 24.  Before that we were looking at his other strengths and likes: writing, math and wanting to help other people.  Jeremy's wonderful  teacher at his  transition program during his school years had this to say about Jeremy and possible employment:

“Jeremy does not like jobs with physical activities but likes to work with ideas and be able to tell others what to do…. As the case manager, I see Jeremy’s strong assets like working data, communicating with people to purchase/buy/manage a business. He is able to do gross motor activities, but often finds fine motor activities difficult and frustrating. Jeremy needs more opportunities exploring jobs and finding out what he would do to have fun and earn money.  These last two ideas are very important to Jeremy.”

             - Allan Gustafson, Interview with Jeremy Sicile-Kira, Transition Year 07-08

Like all parents, my husband and I had often worried about our son, Jeremy, and what his future will look like. Jeremy graduated from high school  in 2010 with a full academic diploma at age 21, despite being severely impacted by autism. With the economic situation being what it was then (and even now), we were (and still are) doubly concerned about the financial aspects of Jeremy’s  life as an adult. But as the saying goes, worry gets you nowhere – fast. Preparing, planning and creative thinking is a better alternative to wringing your hands. Since graduation, Jeremy has tried different things, and he discovered that by following his passions, it is possible to earn money and be employed or start a business. 

When thinking about employment for your child or student  on the spectrum, there are a few  aspects that need to be focused on:  the life skills he or she needs to learn; a clear understanding of what employers look for in an employee; the interests and strengths of the person on the spectrum; the usefulness of mentors; and the different employment structures currently available.

Needed Life Skills

In my book, Autism Life Skills: From Communication and Safety to Self-Esteem and More – 10 Essential Abilities Every Child Needs and Deserves to Learn, the ten skill areas covered are important for all aspects of life, whether  at school, at home, or in the community. Some of the skills  such as self-regulation, independence, social relationships,  and self-advocacy are  important  for getting and keeping a job. The topic of earning a living is the last chapter in my book, because being able to get and hold a job  is really a culmination of  all the life skills  hopefully learned during the school –age years, whether a person is on or off the spectrum. For example, for someone to be accepted in a workplace, they must be able to control their emotional and sensory meltdowns. A certain amount of independence is needed at most jobs. Understanding that you should speak to your boss differently than you would to  a colleague is important to know in most work situations. Self advocacy skills are  necessary in order to request what you need to get the job done.

Life skills in general  should be broken down and translated into IEP goals and objectives, especially during middle school, high school and  transition years. Obviously, everyone is different and the skill level reached for each of these skills is different depending on the person, but every student needs to learn a minimum in order to live and work in the community.

My next blog post will be about what employers are looking for when hiring. When looking for work, it's important -on or off the spectrum - to know what employers want.