This post is the second in the series related to employment. Springtime graduations are exciting times in a family’s life. Whether the student is exiting high school or receiving a college degree, the family’s pride follows their loved ones as they venture out into young adulthood where they either begin post-secondary education programs or step into their careers. Yet it is still an anxious time for parents, even when their child is “typical” and appears to possess both the academic and social savvy to progress through young adulthood. How much more fraught with angst is it when parents know that their child is not ready even though the diploma has been awarded and dutifully framed in the family home. Parents know that the deck is stacked against their children with disabilities, even when they are higher functioning, such as those students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
Each year, some 50,000 students with ASDs graduate from high school. Half a million will graduate high school in the next decade, and we have pretty good data to help us predict what the coming years look like for these new graduates. The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) began compiling data in 2000-2001 for high school students who were receiving special education services under the IDEA eligibility classification of “autism.” The most recent data compilation was done in 2009, when these former students ranged in age from 21-25. According to these data, only 58% of young adults with ASD were working for pay outside the home, which is a far lower employment rate than that for young adults with other disabilities (eg;, learning disabilities, 95%; speech and language impairments, 91%; emotional disturbance, 91%; and intellectual disability, 74%). Of those with ASD who worked, only 21% were employed full-time; 79% worked part-time. Young adults with ASD who were from families with less income or who had more significant ASD symptoms fared even worse.
So what do we think has happened? Why are young adults with ASD faring so much worse than other young adults with disabilities? According to Rick Lavoie, a social skills training expert, “Social skills deficits are the ultimate determining factor in the child’s future success, happiness, and acceptance.” It’s simply not enough to be book smart in this world, you have to have the emotional intelligence and people savvy to job hunt, ace an employment interview, and ultimately be able to hold a job. And it’s simply not that easy for these young adults with ASD.
It’s frustrating for young adults and their parents to hear these realities, particularly since most of them have gone through special education programs and their accompanying transition plans (58% had transition plans according to the NLTS2; legally transition plans are required for all high school students). Simply put, these transition plans are failing to prepare these students adequately for further education, employment, and independent living, as required by IDEA. There are service providers in many communities—job coaches, social skill facilitators, life coaches—who are prepared to work with young adults with ASD, but the services are no longer provided free through the public schools. As we know, 26% of young adults receive no services—the ones who have fallen off the “autism cliff.”
There is an employment “bright side” for the somewhat stereotypical person with ASD—the so-called inept genius (think Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory). Some high-tech employers are beginning to recognize the contributions that such individuals can make and are thus becoming more willing to forgive the social ineptitude such employees may display. Some employers are even actively training or recruiting such talents. One such company is a Danish firm called Specialisterne, which hires persons with high functioning autism and trains them for IT or technology positions. Thorkil Sonne, founder of the nonprofit company and himself the parent of a son with autism, estimates that Specialisterne has generated some 500 jobs to date for people with autism. Microsoft announced in April that it would partner with Specialisterne to create a pilot program to promote diversity at its Redmond facility in Washington. Closer to home in the Chicago area, Aspiritech urges clients to “harness the strengths of people with high functioning autism” whom the firm trains to take software testing positions.
For now, these firms are the exception. The reality lies in the data uncovered in the NTLS2 study. The journal Pediatrics, which reviewed the same data in a 2012 article (due to different statistical methods the results vary slightly), places the blame for the unfavorable employment and post-secondary education outcomes for persons with ASD on poor transition planning. With half a million young adults turning 18 in the next decade, we need to better prepare them for life post-IEP as well as have more services available to meet their needs as they navigate the adult world. Too many IEPs are focused merely on the academic needs of students. We need to be thinking equally about not just what the students know, but what they can do. This includes working much more intensively with students with ASD on pragmatic communication, social skills, behaviors, and organizational issues—all areas that are tripping up young adults with ASD post-high school. Perhaps then many more students with ASDs can be successfully launched into their adult roles and world.