Preparing Teens With Autism for Work: Self Employment

Self-employment is an option for those who can't handle a traditional job.

Posted May 18, 2016

Chantal Sicile-Kira
Source: Chantal Sicile-Kira

Although I encouraged Jeremy to try employment or volunteer experiences that seemed like a good fit in high school, I was not holding my breath waiting for any  opportunities to show up on the horizon. I am not convinced that that much has changed since 2010 in the job market in regards to hiring  people like Jeremy, although I hear about opportunities for those who are able to learn computer programming, testing, data entry.  I don’t anticipate a huge rush of employers looking to hire my son any day soon. But that doesn't mean I am going to give up on him - or society. We have to educate employers, but we also have to prepare our students better.

I became interested in the concept of self-employment when Jeremy was not offered any  work experiences during his first few years of high school, about 10 years ago. The workability person at the time felt that Jeremy was not ready for any of the job options she had in the community. She deemed Jeremy "not community ready" despite the fact that I had him out and learning shopping skills, appropriate behavior in the library and taking subways and buses in three of the world's busiest cities. However, his teacher - one of the best he has ever had -  felt everyone, including Jeremy, had potential, and was open to creating a self-employment experience. At that time, Jeremy could not communicate as readily as he can now, and so we had to  come up with ideas based on observations that people who knew  Jeremy made about his strengths and weaknesses, his likes and dislikes, and then ask him yes or no questions.

I had heard of people with developmental disabilities having their own businesses.  When the opportunity came, I  attended a workshop on the process and how it could work, and it made sense to me for someone like Jeremy.  It was clear that if workability was telling me there was not  a work experience opportunity for  Jeremy, I was going to have to create something for him  to learn “on the job” skills.

Jeremy’s teacher came up with the idea of starting a sandwich delivery service for the teachers, based on Jeremy’s strengths and likes, and the fact that by the end of the week, the teachers were sick of the on-site lunch option -  so there was a need for such a service.  Jeremy’s second experience was providing  a needed product (selling flowers to peers at school where no flowers were available on campus). Then he was asked to help with a coffee cart initiative on the school site. A Self-Employment Workbook I created was used to to help get these different experiences up and running.

Recently the mother of a current high school student surprised me by saying that two of the self-employment initiatives my son was started  (or help start)  are still up and running at the school, providing some job training experiences for others.

By actually doing these businesses, Jeremy learned valuable business lessons.  These lessons were complimented by general education classes he took those semesters, such as a class on marketing and another one on economics. He could not do all the course work, but he learned by sitting and listening. For his class projects he had to write papers on how he applied those principles to his job. Actually, his classmates wrote papers, Jeremy spelled out one short paragraph by slowly pointing to letters on a letter board or keyboard. Some of these lessons were:  the cost of doing business; the difference between a profit and a loss;  how marketing, location and  price affected the numbers of customers he was able to attract and keep. Jeremy also learned that if  he could not do all aspects of his job,  he had to pay someone else to do the parts he could not. In reality, it is these kinds of business lessons all neurotypical teens should be learning in the current economy.

That being said, self-employment is not for everyone and necessitates a business support team. The business support team can be made up of a teacher or parent, a paraprofessional, a mentor , a friend, someone who has business experience. Each person brings their knowledge to the team.   The business team helps to advise in areas the person needs help with, and also does parts of the business the person cannot, just as in all businesses (ie I pay a tech guy to take care of my website because I can’t). There are free resources, available on-line for those who are not experienced in starting up a business.  

Looking at self employment as an option sometimes leads to an actual job. The process of discovering a person’s strengths and weaknesses, can lead to discovering  areas of traditional employment that  had not been   considered for that person previously. Sometimes it leads to a job offer  from a business in the local community that  the person had visited  to  get more  information about his area of interest.


Teaching children and teens on the spectrum needed life skills is a necessary  preparation to  life as a money-earning adult. Analyzing the needs of both the potential employee and employer, as well as looking at the different options in employment structures is necessary to ensuring a good match. Finding a mentor can help with a successful  transition to gainful employment.

Recently I discovered that Jeremy was painting portraits of people in his dreams. He started dictating his dreams to me and his support staff and decided he wanted to try and paint his dreams in real life. Now, he is paid to paint people's 'colors.'

His past employment experiences have enabled him to understand about what is needed to keep his business going now.

Chantal Sicile-Kira
Source: Chantal Sicile-Kira