Autism. In recent years, the word has attracted considerable attention, often relating to children with autism. What about adolescents and adults who have been diagnosed with a condition on the autism spectrum, which includes Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified, and Asperger’s Disorder? Can they be productive, successful employees?
Yes, and in fact they are often valuable and loyal employees if their strengths are recognized and they are given the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. Very often, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are honest, dedicated, and detail oriented. They may have a unique sense of humor, thrive on routine, are able to persevere on challenges, possess a creative perspective, and are often experts in their area of interest. On the right job, with the right support, people on the spectrum have the potential to be successful at work.
When they experience difficulty in the workplace, it is most often because a person on the autism spectrum is vulnerable to difficulties with social interactions, transitions, abstract thinking, planning, organization, time management, and working in teams. Some may struggle with being flexible, and have a need for structure, repetition, clear and concrete guidelines, and an understanding supervisor.
In some cases, these challenges can be addressed by workplace accommodations. In other cases, though, the person with ASD needs help to develop a set of skills that will facilitate a more successful venture into employment. Out of recognition of their needs, as well as an increase in the number of people diagnosed with autism over the past 10 years, programs and services specifically designed to meet the employment needs of people on the spectrum are beginning to emerge.
People with ASDs have a wide range of skills and deficits. Programs, therefore, tailor their services to the needs of the individuals whom they assist to target skill deficits and maximize their ability to obtain and retain gainful employment and do so with the greatest level of independence possible. These services often include skill instruction in social interactions, self-advocacy, job search, applications, and interviewing. They may also offer job observation and on-the-job trials.
Although no definitive scientific evidence has been established to guide the development of these programs, some promising practices have been identified. If done well, these programs should foster self-awareness and self-esteem, teach new skills while reinforcing those previously learned, make social rules clear and concrete, teach simple scripts for common social interactions, reinforce social response attempts, and model skills learned.
For some participants, a greater emphasis may be placed on a higher level of direct supports and deliberate advocacy with employers. These might include the use of supported employment, where the person with ASD receives one-to-one support, on-the-job training from a representative of the program to learn their responsibilities as well as work place rules and expectations. These job coaches, as they are known, may also orchestrate relationships with supervisors and fellow workers to ensure that support is maintained if and when job coaching supports can be gradually faded to the point where the employee with ASD is independent at work just like anyone else.
JVS of MetroWest’s Career Center for individuals diagnosed with ASD offers a broad range of services specifically designed to meet the unique needs of people with autism who want to enter the workforce. Since March 2011, the Center has been serving adults on the autism spectrum, individually and in small group settings. The Center offers multiple sessions of weekly social skills, work readiness, and job search groups. Participants, as appropriate, rotate through simulated work stations which include business office, retail store, document imaging station, medical office, shipping and receiving department, and working in the cafe. Participants also visit employment sites to learn about the types of work available as well as to try out some of the job tasks.
Employer outreach, education, and involvement are integral to the Center’s activities; human resources specialists from local employers volunteer to conduct practice interviews with participants. Despite the communication and social skills challenges faced by many participants, JVS’ Career Center is demonstrating that when provided with the appropriate services, many individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders are able to perform work activities that lead to personal satisfaction, independence, and community integration.
For more information about JVS’ Career Center, contact Lauren A. Klein at 973-674-6330, ext 237, or Lklein@jvsnj.org.