If you are the parent of a teenager with autism you may have already begun to think about what adulthood will bring for your child with respect to viable living options, access to necessary services, and social opportunities. If you are the parent of a “high-functioning” teen, you may allow yourself to picture a future in which your adult child is employed. Maybe you have read some of the recent well-publicized stories of major corporations benefitting from the loyalty, attention to detail, and punctuality exhibited by many employees with Asperger’s syndrome. If like me, you are the parent of a “low-functioning” non-verbal, stimming adolescent, you are not often encouraged to consider a future of meaningful and satisfying employment.
I first started researching attitudes and trends in autism and employment several years ago while I was working with a state advocacy group to develop a program on the transition to adulthood for individuals on the spectrum. I asked supported employment experts about the prospects for employment for kids like my own son and was told several times that when they discuss autism and employment, they are not talking about kids like him.
My son is nonverbal (communicates effectively via an AAC device) and has significant sensory and behavioral challenges. In spite of the fact that he is generally considered to be “low-functioning” based on the loosely agreed-upon set of standards that society has established, he is intelligent, engaging, and very resourceful. Recently, he has expressed interest and demonstrated skill in various pre-vocational tasks including data entry, filing, and merchandise organization. He is learning these skills through our ongoing efforts to coordinate IEP goals, school district-funded parent training, and as of very recently, insurance-funded SLP.
We have placed him in a specialized school for students with disabilities which offer vocational training, community-based instruction, and behavioral supports which would not be available to him in a mainstream classroom environment.
The articles that I have read about autism and the workplace typically characterize autism as an invisible disability. In fact, for many individuals, autism is very visible. To imply that these individuals are unemployable is to ignore advances in augmentative communication tools, supported employment resources, innovative specialized education programs, and training that parents may conduct in the home with the support of outside experts. The “low-functioning” label may be a convenient short-hand, but it perpetuates stereotypes that serve as a barrier to employment.