Contributed by Cathy Pratt, Ph.D., Director and Chris Filler, Professional and Parent, Ohio from Indiana Institute on Disability and Community
Every three years, the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) is legislatively mandated to conduct a needs assessment survey. As part of this survey, families are asked questions about topics such as insurance coverage, Medicaid waivers, impact of educational programs, interactions with the criminal justice system, and other relevant topics. The past two surveys have asked family members with children no longer attending school programs about the employment of their sons/daughters on the autism spectrum.
In 2006, the IRCA survey showed that 61% of individuals (over age 18) represented in the survey were unemployed, 14% worked in sheltered workshops and 25% worked in community jobs. Those who are currently employed work an average of 21 hours per week and have a median annual income of $6,516. This figure is troubling considering the dramatic increase in the number of those receiving educational services under the eligibility category of ASD, and the realization that this population will soon be entering the adult service system en masse. It’s also troubling because it illustrates the misunderstandings among many professionals concerning the realities and range of ASD.
Families advocating on behalf of their sons/daughters on the spectrum will come to realize that many adult providers have not received current and accurate information on autism. This lack of knowledge will impact eligibility and the types of services the person will receive. Below are 10 recommendations of information that adult service providers will need to know.
- Adult service providers need a thorough understanding of ASD, the spectrum and the diagnosis. It is not unusual for there to be tremendous misunderstandings about Asperger’s and those at the “upper” end of the spectrum. Often these individuals are perceived as being willful or manipulative. For those with more significant disabilities, there is a misunderstanding about the potential gifts and talents they may possess. Adult service providers must understand the complexity of ASD, and that there are no generalized services that will work for all. They must understand that ASD is neurological and not a mental illness or emotional disorder.
- Those with ASD require a creative and careful assessment process. Many people with ASD often have unique skills that are not necessarily obvious during a traditional assessment process. They may possess skills suited for a specific “niche” that could lead to successful supported or competitive employment. Identification of these skills often occurs through careful observation, interviews with those who know the person well (e.g., family members or the individual him/herself) and a longitudinal assessment process. Several hours of traditional assessment or a checklist of vocational skills often misses the person’s unique and most important strengths.
- Be willing to think “outside the box.” Traditional vocational programs are not always the most appropriate or successful. Vocational/employment programs, supports and services all too often seem to be offered in terms of available options, instead of what the person needs and is interested in doing. Due to some people’s narrow focus and need for functional routines, there are situations when all of the available/traditional options for employment are equally unsuccessful. Sadly, there are times when a person is forced into an inappropriate setting and fails miserably. Agencies may then conclude the person is unemployable, rather than searching for a job match that acknowledges skills and talents. Do not assume that the person with ASD that struggles with communication and socialization has that same level of challenge in all areas. In fact, assume the opposite! Many areas of skill will be significantly more developed than social-communication skills.
- Be aware of sensory processing challenges. These challenges often limit many with ASD if gone unrecognized and un-accommodated. The person with ASD’s perception and ability to tolerate or cope with the sights and sounds of a typical work environment can be quite different than that of their co-workers. Accommodations can be made and coping skills can be developed. However, this does not happen automatically, quickly or under threat of losing a job. In fact, the person will likely shut down or quit rather than deal with the situation or attempt to explain the difficulties. This does not mean that the environment needs to be silent or rigid. It does mean that opportunities to periodically leave a stressful environment should be available and without consequence. Environmental control or accommodation can dramatically change the quality and quantity of the work or product, while presenting the person in the most positive light.
- Build on strengths. This should be the philosophy when working with any person. However, the strengths of those with ASD may be less obvious and may be more narrowly focused than those of others that come to the attention of agencies that provide employment services. Rather than addressing deficits, opportunities should acknowledge strengths and interests, when possible.
- Prepare, prepare, prepare. Be certain the person understands what is to happen during the assessment, work site trials and work training processes. Some require visual supports to assist in this area. Others may need to visit and explore the environment. In some cases, a verbal description and explanation of the situation, schedule and expectation may be sufficient. However, always err on the side of concrete and visual supports.
- Communication should not be all talk. Fewer words often are better. People have a tendency to talk too much to folks on the spectrum, regardless of whether the person is verbal or not. They assume that a verbal person will be able to understand verbal expression equally as well as other employees. This is misleading as some with ASD may use many words, but have limited receptive language. Be prepared to use more written and concrete communication and directions. Develop schedules, visual sequences of tasks, and information about the written and unwritten “rules” of the work culture. Employers and co-workers should be aware that the words they say may not communicate meaning as much as environmental reminders and cues. And finally, realize that many of these individuals do not understand sarcasm, innuendos and double meanings. As a result, the directions that we provide may be confusing or meaningless.
- Consider carefully the environment and predictability of the job. Workshop-type settings often are the worst for those on the spectrum. These settings typically contain many people, loud noises, and a lack of privacy or a place to get away. Even the person that seems less capable may perform better in a community setting with support than in a sheltered setting. Intermittent employment may not be a good idea either. Seasonal, ever-changing jobs increase the likelihood of anxiety, stress and behavioral escalation. This does not mean to place the person in a boring or static situation. This does mean that the predictability and stability of the employment will go a long way in creating an efficient and successful employee. If the job is one that offers change, use environmental and organizational supports to create predictability and structure.
- Social expectations require instruction. Social challenges are a hallmark of the ASD diagnosis. These challenges extend beyond the school years and can dramatically affect the person’s ability to successfully integrate into a work setting. Be prepared to help the person understand the social expectations (“rules”) of the job. These often are “unwritten” or “hidden” rules of the work culture, and can be critical for acceptance. Do not assume the person will “read” the social climate and adjust. It will not happen. Instead, prepare the person by teaching expectations. Rehearse how to greet, ask for help, “small talk,” compliments, etc. The employer should be aware that if social errors occur on the job, these should be calmly addressed in a very direct manner. Subtle suggestions will not work.
- Systems must work together (delays can be deadly!). The traditional “hand-off” between school and adult services over a few weeks or even several months often ends in delays in service or employment, misunderstandings and even failure in achieving a successful outcome. Agencies must work with schools to identify students early, begin to actively work with the school team to get to know the student, and begin to identify adult services and potential employment. Timelines vary from state to state and agency to agency. Funding and eligibility requirements may get in the way of a smooth transition. It goes without saying that funding will always be an issue. However, agencies must begin to create opportunities to work together systematically so that the transition is “seamless,” or at least does not unravel all together.
One final thought for family members: As your son or daughter moves from the public school system, which has clear legislative entitlements, to the adult world of eligibility, it is important to have a vision for your child. Examine the possibilities. An issue of the Autism Advocate highlights stories of success that occurred because family members pushed the system and expected a different type of future for their child. Hopefully, these exceptional stories will become common occurrences someday.
Pratt, C. & Filler, C. (2007). Moving into the world of employment. The Reporter, 12(2), 1-2, 13.