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How can young adults on the autism spectrum find employment?

The unemployment numbers for individuals on the autism spectrum are frightening. At best, some reports indicate that the unemployment rate for this population is 45 percent. Without any intervention, anecdotal reports reveal an unemployment rate of more than 90 percent.

While these numbers seem paralyzing, there is hope. With early identification and intervention using empirically-based techniques, the outcomes for children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are getting better every day. Children who would have been institutionalized a generation ago are finishing high school and going on to postsecondary education and vocational training. The trick is finding a path that best suits a student's strengths, interests and aptitudes.


Do identify strengths and aptitudes early

Talk to your child's school about what he/she does well and what programs the local high school offers to promote work skills. Practice independent living skills that promote good work behavior, such as setting his own alarm clock or smartphone, getting up on her own, being on time for appointments, having good hygiene and dressing appropriately for formal occasions.

Do create a detailed plan with goals

Work with your school on developing a transition goal and plan for your son/daughter as a part of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) process. Kids should have a realistic goal in place by age 14, as well as a plan with intermediate steps to reach that goal by age 16.

Part of this process will be deciding whether or not your child should receive special education services through age 21--provided by the school district or some other agency--or whether your child will graduate from high school together with peers. This decision has significant implications, including financial ramifications. Talk to an educational advocate before making this decision.  

Do consider working with state agencies to help find employment

Each state has an office of vocational and rehabilitative services whose mandate is to find employment for individuals with disabilities. The name of the agency will vary from state to state, but the function remains the same. Helping people with disabilities find jobs and job placement is a major part of their service. Learn what an Individualized Plan for Employment (IPE) is and how it differs from a special education IEP. It also can help fund different kinds of vocational training.

Do seek out paid employment while teens are still in high school

Having paid employment while still in high school is one of the strongest predictors of post-high school employment. For example, consider jobs involving computers if your child has an interest in technology. Many individuals on the autism spectrum have a keen interest in computers and have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, solving computer-related problems.

Do research current job trends

Some jobs may need an associate or bachelor degree, while others may require a vocational certificate. For example, game designer jobs require a bachelor degree in engineering or computer science. A web designing job or accounting/bookkeeping technician job will only require an associate degree. To learn computer networking or computer repair work, a vocational certificate is the basic educational requirement.

A burgeoning field is the green goods and services field, especially the recycling of consumer electronics. Businesses, such as e-Works™, partners with social service agencies and colleges to train and hire individuals with developmental disabilities to work in the “e-waste” industry. These individuals make a living wage by learning how to assess computers and electronics to see if they can be refurbished and resold, donated or recycled. Some individuals with good fine motor skills are involved in the de-manufacturing or disassembly of these goods. Others will be involved in the materials handling end of the process.

You can use the Occupational Outlook Handbook, published by the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, to help you identify job trends, median income and educational requirements for thousands of jobs. This free book is available online. Also use the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics web site to help you and your child plan for future employment.


Do not procrastinate

Although your child may only be in elementary school, it is never too early to practice the independent living skills that will help in the world of work. For example, kids can learn travel training skills at a young age by traveling with parents on mass transit. You should explicitly teach skills, such as reading a schedule, buying tickets, how to behave on a bus or train and what to do in an emergency. Remember that time goes by quickly and your child’s learning trajectory may be different from those of classmates. Your kids may need more time, but they are still learning.

When your child enters high school, keep in mind that it is vital to begin practicing "soft" work skills, such as job interviewing and resume writing.

Do not fail to educate yourself

Never assume you will learn everything you need to know about transition planning from your school district. Some school districts are better than others in educating parents about the process and linking parents to post-high school resources. Learn your rights as a parent under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Know the definition of transition services and learn what kinds of services can be funded under Part B of the Act. The answer may surprise you.

Do not overlook the need to be proactive

Do not wait for the offices of vocational rehabilitative services or office of persons with developmental disabilities services to reach out to you and your family. Be proactive. Get to know a caseworker while your child is still in high school. Your school district may be able to help facilitate this relationship. Don’t be afraid to use these services; they are entitlements. Your tax dollars pay for these agencies to do their important work.

Do not be shy

Do not be afraid to use your informal networks in helping your son or daughter find a job in high school or beyond. Most people do not realize that 80 percent of jobs that people land are not found through want ads or job postings. They find out about these jobs through friends and family. Let your network know you are looking for a job for your child. Don’t be shy.

Do not forget to seek out support services and vocational training programs

Parents should not send students with ASD to college without ensuring they have the requisite interest, executive functioning, independent living, academic and social skills necessary to make the transition to college.

Investigate a Comprehensive Transition and Post-Secondary (CTP) program near you to see if they have the support services and vocational training programs your son or daughter needs to help him/her transition into the world of work and independent living. Go to the Federal Student Aid web site for an up-to-date listing of the CTPs near you:

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Although daunting to think about, planning for your child’s future employment can be very exciting. There are a number of resources available to you to help you plan. The trick is to start early. Work with your school district and state agencies to help your child find meaningful employment that provides a living wage. Talk to other parents who are further along in the process as they can be helpful resources.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: Portrait of young waitress holding a tray by Sergey Nivens via BigStock; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Ernst O. VanBergeijk, Ph.D., M.S.W.Associate Dean & Executive Director

Ernst VanBergeijk is the Associate Dean and Executive Director, at New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). The Vocational Independence Program is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition an...

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