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The unemployment statistics for those with autism is in the range of 70 – 80%. Reading such a statistic makes one ask, “Why is this so?” As a parent of two young adults with autism who finished school in June 2017, I am starting to see firsthand why finding a job is difficult.
There are so many skills needed to be successful in a job. Some of them are:
A person with autism might have a few of these skills, but struggle with others, making it difficult to get and sustain work. The key is to implicitly target these areas as early as possible so that your child has a foundation of social and organizational skills when it comes time to enter the work force.
There is a new area of study emerging in autism called critical mass which means true mastery of a skill. Critical mass is the point where an individual has gained enough information to be successful in situations, activities, or skills for which instruction has not been provided. When there has been enough instruction and multiple experiences, a tipping point can occur and the person can apply the skill in many new ways.
Neurotypical people gain critical mass in the areas of social, communication, and basic living skills simply by implicit learning, not through being taught in school. For people with autism, they need implicit instruction in these areas throughout their school years in order to gain these skills. They won’t learn these skills without direct instruction. This is what makes the leap out of school and into employment so difficult – these skills have not been mastered as they are not taught in school like academics are. Reading, writing and mathematics may be acquired upon graduation, but the social, communication and living skills pieces are missing which make a successful adulthood difficult to achieve. How do we change this?
While some school programs have life skills or social skills programs, they are often not started early enough, the programs don’t run all year, or they are faded by a certain age. Because so much practice is needed to acquire a skill, multiple experiences must be provided and on-going. Also consider activities outside of school such as social skills groups, cooking classes, programs through a local leisure center, etc. to provide on-going practice.
Volunteering provides an important opportunity to prepare for the world of work. People with ASD need time and experience to build skills and feel comfortable out in the community. Volunteering within a preferred interest can help a person meet other like-minded people who share their passion for that activity.
My children began volunteering every summer at a Farmer’s Market at age 13 and 11. At that job, they learned how to report to a manager, follow simple instructions, carry out tasks in a specific order, practice conversation skills, problem solve, punctuality, and how to look presentable at a work site.
Julia, now 22, is successfully volunteering at a cat care facility. She has wanted to work with cats since she was 13 years old. Because she came to that position with her experience from the Farmer’s Market, she knew how to sign in for work, report to a manager, and perform in tasks in a specific order. In essence, she had gained critical mass from the other job to be able to do this one successfully.
Not everyone is motivated by money, nor is it always meaningful to people with an ASD. What can be meaningful is creating an understanding of what money can do for you. When my children began volunteering at such a young age, I wanted them to understand the concept of what working a certain number of hours meant. At the Farmer’s Market, the shift was 3 hours, one day a week. I created a work chart for the shifts so each time they worked a shift, they got a check mark. At the end of the month, they had 4 check marks, enough to choose a toy or DVD. They could also bank those check marks to get something more expensive. Both children knew what they were working toward which kept them motivated. They also learned that they had to work more shifts to buy something more expensive.
They still don’t understand the concept of money, but do understand the concept of spending time at a job to earn something they really want. Money is not necessarily a motivator for people with ASD so think about creating other ways to inspire them.
When talking about employment, it seems to be with the goal of full time work. For some adults with ASD, this may not be achievable. Look at part-time work, shorter work days (just a morning or an afternoon), entrepreneurship where you can make your own hours, or some volunteering at a place where you can build skills. For example, I have been investigating a charity that helps mothers with young children. This charity has a number of initiatives, but their main one is cooking and preparing meals for the moms. Since Julia has an interest in cooking and wants to gain skills in this area, this could be a win-win. In time, it could lead to a job with another organization.
We pulled our daughter from a government sponsored training program geared for people with autism. I was surprised at how the program was run. The participants were taken to a new job site every week which caused great anxiety. The job sites were not chosen based on a person’s interest or ability, but rather where the program coordinator could find a business that would allow people with autism to try a job. Some of the places were Goodwill, a mattress recycling plant, and a busy concession stand at a stadium. After the second week, my daughter said to me, “Mom, these jobs don’t make any sense for people with autism. We have difficulty communicating, but we are dealing with customers which is really hard for us.” So that was the end of that.
These programs are also not helping the participants find meaningful work after the training is over. For my son, I was given a list of places to approach after his job training finished. It’s going to be very hard approaching these businesses on my own trying to find a job for my son. He does not have the ability to do it on his own.
Due to a lack of traditional work experiences in the teen years, putting together a resume can be hard. Think about creating a non-traditional resume of skills and interests. Because both of my children have difficulty communicating, I plan to do this with visuals. I will use photos of things they have done to be able to show a potential employer that they do have skills and interests that could benefit a business. Photos or other visuals could also help in an interview or intake process because high anxiety can cause a communication shutdown. I took the last 6 books my son had read to his intake interviews because he just couldn’t answer questions or speak due to nerves. It showed the interviewer that he could read at a high level and read a wide variety of topics. It was impressive.
Entering the world of work is a long term process. Take small steps and try to find the best way to build skills through on-going practice at activities. Try and have as many experiences as possible because each experience can give you something that could help with future employment.
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