How Can Adolescent Learners with Autism be Prepared for Employment?

Answered by Erin Richard, MA, BCBA and Karissa Masuicca, MS Ed, BCBA
Alpine Learning Group, Inc., Paramus, New Jersey

Preparing adolescents with autism for future employment is important. It is essential to shift the focus of programming from academics to more functional life skills and prevocational tasks. Federal mandates require the individualized education programs of learners age 16 and older to include a statement of transition needs, although state codes may require a transition statement at a younger age. Therefore, their educational goals need to focus on preparing them for employment and adult life.

In order to meet these transition requirements, learners’ IEPs begin to emphasize such curriculum areas as vocational, work, community, communication, and self-care skills. Of course, many of these areas will have been addressed in the past; but now, the goals should be specifically aimed toward enhancing employment opportunities.

Vocational skills are the production aspects of jobs, such as setting tables at a restaurant or filing paperwork at a doctor’s office. While some of this teaching should take place in community settings, there are several reasons why it is also beneficial to work on vocational tasks at school. First, when teaching in a simulated environment such as school, teachers can be more systematic about instruction and freely use prompts (e.g., manual guidance), which might be stigmatizing in a community setting. In addition, it is likely that a greater variety of tasks can be presented within the school setting. Since many learners with autism will not be able to verbally indicate their job preferences, it is important that learners sample a wide variety of these tasks to determine what they are good at and what jobs they may prefer.

While job production skills are the most obvious ones required for employment, other curriculum areas are just as important. For example, work skills (i.e., skills other than job production related to maintaining employment), are also important in preparing adolescents with autism for work. Unlike vocational skills, which are job-specific, work skills will assist learners across all job settings. Some examples include learning to take a break, keep appointments, work without direct staff supervision, and increase physical endurance.

Acquiring essential community skills will increase a learner’s general independence in the community and increase their likelihood of obtaining community-based employment. For example, using a public restroom, maintaining appropriate distance from others when walking, and using an elevator are important community skills that will likely be relevant to a learner at an employment site.

Another important curriculum area to focus on when preparing learners for employment is communication skills. In particular, it is important to increase a learner’s ability to communicate with his/her supervisor and coworkers. For example, learners should be taught to greet other employees at work, respond to comments while they are working, speak politely, and ask for additional supplies when needed. For learners to be employed without constant supervision from a support person, they must be able to communicate independently with people at their job. For some learners, this may include the use of an augmentative communication device or a textual exchange system.

Teaching self-care skills is important for employment because these abilities will increase learners’ independence in getting ready for work, as well as influence how employers and coworkers will perceive them. In fact, maintaining a neat appearance and following a dress code are requirements of most any job. At Alpine Learning Group (ALG), we teach learners to monitor their appearance by following written or pictorial schedules, which prompt them to go to the restroom and check how they look. Learning to dine alongside fellow employees during lunchtime is also an essential skill. Thus, we focus on teaching young adults with autism to eat neatly and at an appropriate pace, which increases the likelihood that they will be perceived positively by their coworkers during mealtime and snack breaks.

Of course, in addition to having the skills necessary to perform a job and assimilate into the work environment, it is equally important that a learner’s behavior is appropriate for the setting. Consideration of a tolerable level of problem behavior depends on the environment of the worksite. For example, employees at libraries must have near-zero levels of loud or disruptive behavior. On the other hand, if someone is employed in a large, busy packaging warehouse, moderate rates of vocal stereotypy may be acceptable.

At Alpine Learning Group, a large part of preparing our learners for employment is accomplished through our Supported Internship Program. The goal of this program is to prepare learners for community-based employment by having them intern at local businesses. It is a job sampling, rather than job training, program—so learners are not being prepared for only one specific job. Rather, between the ages of 16 and 21, learners rotate through a variety of positions so we can assess their strengths and job preferences. Our internship sites currently include 16 different community businesses, such as retail stores, restaurants, hospitals, and offices. The jobs include a variety of tasks (e.g., sedentary jobs, positions in noisy environments), require various skills (e.g., filing, packaging, cleaning), and are appropriate for learners with different skill sets.

All of our learners attend their internships with a support person who is a staff member from the learner’s classroom at school (i.e., either a teacher or instructional aide). The support staff persons collect data on the learners’ acquisition of the job and the occurrences of any problem behavior. Importantly, support staff persons also obtain information on learners’ job preferences, either by asking their opinions or, for learners with limited communication, observing how much they appear to enjoy the job. Supervisors make frequent visits to help problem solve, provide training to staff, and monitor progress.

As the learner approaches graduation and permanent employment is sought, the data and observations collected at internships will be used to help learners, together with their families and service providers, make informed decisions about potentially fulfilling and productive employment options. With some forethought and planning, employment, with varying levels of support, can be a reality for many adults with autism.

References

Meyer, L. S., Taylor, B. A., Cerino, K. E., Fisher, J. R., Moran, L. M., & Richard. E. (2006). Alpine Learning Group. In J. S. Handleman & S. L. Harris (Eds.). School-age education programs for children with autism (pp.1-47). Austin, TX.

Citation for this article:

Richard, E. & Masuicca, K. (2010). Clinical corner: How can adolescent learners with autism be prepared for employment? Science in Autism Treatment, 7(1), 6-7.