Preparing for the Real World of Work

Jeremy does not like jobs with physical activities but likes to work with ideas and be able to tell others what to do…. As the case manager, I see Jeremy’s strong assets like working data, communicating with people to purchase/buy/manage a business. He is able to do gross motor activities, but often finds fine motor activities difficult and frustrating. Jeremy needs more opportunities exploring jobs and finding out what he would do to have fun and earn money. These last two ideas are very important to Jeremy.

Like all parents, my husband and I worry about our son, Jeremy, and what his future will look like. Jeremy is now 20 years old, and with the economic situation being what it is, we are doubly concerned about the financial aspects of Jeremy’s life as an adult. But as the saying goes, worry gets you nowhere - fast. Preparing, planning. and creative thinking is a better alternative to wringing our hands.

When thinking about employment for your child or student on the spectrum, there are a few aspects that need to be focused on: the life skills he or she needs to learn; a clear understanding of what employers look for in an employee; the interests and strengths of the person on the spectrum; the usefulness of mentors; and the different employment structures currently available.

Necessary Life Skills
In my latest book, Autism Life Skills: From Communication and Safety to Self-Esteem and More – 10 Essential Abilities Every Child Needs and Deserves to Learn, the ten skill areas covered are important for all aspects of life, whether at school, at home, or in the community. Some of the skills, such as self-regulation, independence, social relationships, and self-advocacy are important for getting and keeping a job. The topic of earning a living is the last chapter in my book, because being able to get and hold a job is really a culmination of all the life skills hopefully learned during the school-age years, whether a person is on or off the spectrum. For example, for someone to be accepted in a workplace, you must be able to control your emotional and sensory meltdowns. A certain amount of independence is needed at most jobs. Understanding that you should speak to your boss differently than you would to a colleague is important to know in most work situations. Self-advocacy skills are necessary in order to request what you need to get the job done.

Life skills, in general, should be broken down and translated into IEP (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) goals and objectives, especially during middle school, high school, and transition years. Obviously, everyone is different, and the skill level reached for each of these skills is different depending on the person, but every student needs to learn a minimum in order to live and work in the community.

What Employers Look for When Hiring
Too often, when looking for a job placement for a person on the spectrum, people take the approach of asking for handout, or a favor. We need to approach this differently. I took a look at the top 10 skills and attributes most employers look for as identified by the Bureau of Labor (Job Outlook, 2003) and discovered that many of those attributes are attributes people on the spectrum have, yet rarely do we sell those attributes to prospective employers. Here’s the top ten of what employers look for: honesty and integrity; a strong work ethic; analytical skills; computer skills; teamwork; time management and organizational skills; communication skills (oral and written); flexibility; interpersonal skills; motivation /i nitiative.

Now, many of you who are reading this are probably focusing on the skills in this list your child or student does not have. Look at it again, and think about what attributes your child does have. For example, most people on the spectrum are honest to a fault – they are usually the ones in the store saying “yes” when a woman trying on a dress says “Does this make me look fat?” They are not the employees who will be caught with their hand in the cash till. That’s a positive point to sell. A strong work ethic applies to most of our guys and gals – th e ones who do not like a change in routine and are going to be there rain or shine. They will not be calling in sick because they had one too many martinis the night before, or leave early because they have an event to attend. Analytical skills are really “obsessive attention to detail,” and many of our children have that. The child who likes to line up blocks and trains probably has good organizational skills. Teamwork and flexibility are difficult areas for many, but we should be teaching flexibility at school (there are ways of doing that), and teamwork can be handled by ensuring the person on the spectrum has one person on the team that they is in contact with for all needed information. Many of our children with Asperger’s are good communicators, and some have become journalists, speechwriters, and professors.

The point is, when people are selling a product and/ or service, they market the positive attributes, not the negatives. And that’s precisely what we need to be doing with any prospective employees on the spectrum.

The Child’s Interests and Strengths
It is extremely important to consider what your child or student likes or is passionate (i.e., obsessed) about and figure out how that can help him earn money. In most cases, people on the spectrum can be difficult to motivate – unless it involves something they are really into. For some, it is quite obvious what they are particularly interested in because they don’t let you forget. The trick is to figure out how to use that interest and turn it into a moneymaker or to find a career field that can use that particular interest or talent. That’s where mentors come into play (more about that later).

For most on the spectrum, a job will be their one connection to the community and their main activity. If a neurotypical hates his job, he usually has another aspect of his life that is bringing him pleasure – his family, his church, athletic activities. However, most on the spectrum do not have family or friends or many outside groups they belong to, so it is important to help them find work that will fulfill them in some way.

There are those for whom it is fairly obvious what they are passionate about. For many like my son, Jeremy, it is a much less obvious. There doesn’t seem to be anything he is particularly obsessed about that could lead to employment. He used to love to spin tops (physics researcher?), and to follow the patterns in carpets and floor tiles (carpet checker in a rug factory?), but now he is mostly focused on communicating about girls with his support people (beauty contest judge?). However, by having different people work with him or observe him in different environments, we have been able to come up with ideas to try out and jobs to avoid.

When thinking about Jeremy’s future money-making potential (either in a job, customized employment, or self-employment), we thought about the different strengths and weaknesses Jeremy had. The questions we asked ourselves are the same that most people should consider when helping someone on the spectrum who is considering employment. For example, we asked:

- What is Jeremy usually drawn to?

- Is there a particular subject area or skill area that Jeremy excels in?

- What, if left to his own devices, does he like to do most?

- What motivates Jeremy to do what he does?

- How successful is Jeremy at self-regulating? Does he need to work in a place with low sensory stimulation?

- What kinds of situations cause Jeremy to feel anxious?

- What do Jeremy’s organizational or multitasking skills look like?

- Does Jeremy do better in crowded environments or when there are fewer people around?

- Does Jeremy like moving around or staying in the same place?

- How many hours a week of work can Jeremy handle? Will he be ok with a 40-hour a week job, or does he need a part-time job?

- Does Jeremy like routine and the stability of doing the same thing every day, or does he like change?

Jeremy is interested in the concept of self-employment and did well in two self-employment experiences he tried in high school. He had a lot more control over his environment and what his daily tasks consisted of than he would have had in a regular employment situation. However, if he were to apply for a job, there are many questions he would need to ask a prospective employer (or someone would have to ask for him) during the interview process to ensure a good fit between himself and the job and the work environment.

The Importance of Mentors
Mentors can help figure out how to turn an interest into a job or into a means to earn money. Temple Grandin (Thinking in Pictures; Developing Talents) speaks often about the importance of mentors in helping to turn interests into marketable skills. That is what helped her become the success she is today. Temple had mentors from her science teacher at school to her aunt, from family friends to colleagues who were crucial to her success. If your child appears to have skills or a real interest in a specific area, someone who works in that field can help the child realize the application of his interests. Parents may realize their child’s talent but not know all about a certain employment area.

For example, a child may enjoy spending hours on the computer, but his parent who is a taxi driver or a school teacher or an attorney, may not know anything about the field of computers and employment possibilities. Someone who works in computers, perhaps a tech guy the family knows, can give insight into jobs available for someone with that child’s talents.

Mentors can also help a student feel valued as that person will be interested in the same topic he is and will enjoy hearing what the child has to say whereas family members may be tired of hearing about a topic they have little or no interest in.

Different Employment Structures
There are different employment structures currently available. By analyzing a person’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and by asking some of the questions above, a clearer idea of what could be a good match with the person on the spectrum is possible. There is full-time work, part-time work, seasonal work, year-round employment, and so on.

Other less traditional structures are becoming more popular, and this is probably in response to the realization that most adults with disabilities are unemployed. In 2002, unemployment figures for disabled adults hovered at 70% and had been for the previous 12 years (2002 Report by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education). This report showed that, besides needing to do a better job of preparing our students for employment, we also had to start looking at other employment structures more conducive to individual employee needs.

One less traditional structure is customized employment, which means that the work is tailored to the individual, not the other way around. It can mean job carving, where one job is carved up into different tasks and shared by several people, giving each employee the part of the job they enjoy or excel at the most. Another type of customized employment is self-employment, which is sometimes referred to as micro-enterprise and which basically means having your own business or being self-employed. This can be a good option for those who are having a difficult time fitting into regular paid positions or when there is no position available. This option is gaining popularity in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. For some examples of self-employment initiatives by people with developmental disabilities, visit

Self-Employment as an Option
Although I would encourage Jeremy to try an employment opportunity that seems like a good fit, I am not holding my breath waiting for that job to show up on the horizon. I am not convinced that that much has changed since 2002 in the job market in regards to hiring disabled people and certainly with all the neurotypicals now jobless, I don’t anticipate a huge rush of employers looking to hire my son.

I became interested in the concept of self-employment or micro-enterprise when Jeremy was not offered any work experiences during his first few years of high school, about five years ago. The workability person at the time felt that Jeremy was not ready for any of the job options she had in the community. His teacher, however, felt everyone, including Jeremy, had potential, and was open to creating a self-employment experience under workability. At that time, Jeremy could not communicate as readily as he can now, and so we had to come up with ideas based on observations that people who knew Jeremy made about his strengths and weaknesses, his likes and dislikes. Then we asked him yes or no questions.

I had heard of people with developmental disabilities having their own business. When the opportunity came, I attended a workshop on the process to see how it could work. It made sense to me for someone like Jeremy. It was clear that if workability was telling me there was not a work experience opportunity for Jeremy, I was going to have to create something for him to learn on-the-job skills.

Based on Jeremy’s strengths and likes, his teacher came up with the idea of starting a sandwich delivery service for the teachers. Adding to that was the fact that by the end of the week, the teachers were sick of the on-site lunch option, so there was a need for such a service. Jeremy’s second work experience was providing a needed product (selling flowers to peers at school where no flowers were available on campus). By actually running these businesses, Jeremy learned valuable business lessons. These lessons were complemented by the general education classes he took those semesters, such as a class on marketing and another one on economics. For his class projects, he had to write papers about how he applied those principles to his job. Here are some of the lessons he learned: the cost of doing business; the difference between a profit and a loss; how marketing, location and price affected the numbers of customers he was able to attract and keep. Jeremy also learned that if he could not do all aspects of his job, he had to pay someone else to do the parts he could not. In reality, it is these kinds of business lessons all neurotypical teens should be learning in the current economy.

That being said, self-employment is not for everyone and necessitates a business support team. The business support team can be made up of a teacher or parent, a paraprofessional, a mentor, a friend, someone who has business experience. Each person brings special knowledge to the team. The business team helps to advise in areas the person needs help with and also does parts of the business the person cannot, just as in all businesses (e.g., I pay a tech guy to take care of my website because I can’t). There are free resources, available online for those who are not experienced in starting up a business.

Looking at self-employment as an option sometimes leads to an actual job. The process of discovering a person’s strengths and weaknesses, can lead to discovering areas of traditional employment that had not been considered previously. Sometimes it leads to a job offer from a business in the local community that the person had visited to get more information about his area of interest.

Teaching children and teens on the spectrum needed life skills is a necessary preparation to life as a money-earning adult. Analyzing the needs of both the potential employee and employer as well as looking at the different options in employment structures is necessary to ensuring a good match. Finding a mentor can help with a successful transition to gainful employment.

This year, Jeremy is benefiting from two workability experiences while he is studying to earn his high school diploma. Twice a week he works at the local library (which he has visited on a regular basis for the last 10 years). Once a week he helps develop the business and marketing plans for the micro-enterprise experience that some of the other students are working on through workability. Jeremy has come a long way thanks to all the different team members along the way who believed in his potential. It takes a village….

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