A Recipe for Vocational Success
By Joel H. Smith, Ph.D
November– December, 1996 Focus on the Adult with Autism
The Advocate, the newsletter of the Autism Society of America, reprinted
Adults with autism and their families face an unsettling frustrating two fold obstacle: 1) They are in desperate need of a wide range of vocational, adult life and community services, and 2) unfortunately, the options that they are offered typically do not meet their individualized needs. Thus they sometimes find themselves in conflict with the system in order to receive the services they need. In addition, when adults with autism are successful in obtaining services, often staff are not experienced in working with persons with autism. In this instance, a vendor or professional staff may likely state that although they are not knowledgeable and have not worked with persons with autism, they are willing to try and learn.
For many parents, these unsatisfactory responses to individual family needs do not produce confidence and hope for the young adult, the adult, or the family
As the Executive Director of the Autism Services Association in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, a private non-profit human service agency that provides vocational social, supported employment, and community skills training, I come into contact with the real life concerns of family members and many adults with autism in the community. As a result, I am very attuned to the vocational expectations and experiences that many adults with autism typically face.
The following is a brief attempt to raise vocational rehabilitation questions and guide families, professionals, and consumers to some of the issues involved in the appropriate selection and evaluation of vocational programs in meeting the unique needs of persons with autism. I’ve provided several checklists of questions and issues to help parents and professionals assist adults with autism handle the
concerns that often arise in vocational rehabilitation.
These are some of the ongoing vocational rehabilitation issues that many family members typically raise in trying to obtain VR services for their son or daughter:
“What services do we need to get for our child?”
“My adult son or daughter with autism is in a large workshop facility and is not doing well; behaviors, both self injurious and aggressive have either returned or begun for the first time. What do we do and how can you help the workshop understand the needs of our son or daughter?”
“My respite worker cannot deal with my son or daughter because he/she does not understand the needs of person with autism.”
“Some staff think my child has psychiatric problems and they are fearful of him/her; staff do not interact or communicate with him/her because they feel he/she cannot understand.”
Or the family may be concerned in cases when persons with autism are placed in segregated environments, including workshops where their needs are not addressed and vocational development does not occur.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A PROGRAM
If you are someone with concerns similar to those listed above, use as much care as possible to select a program that can handle the individual needs of the person autism. Generally speaking, persons with autism perform better vocationally and socially when their program possesses the following positive environmental contexts:
1) Staff who have experience in working with persons with autism.
2) Programmatic interventions and staff who understand autism as a communication and developmental disorder, not a psychiatric disorder
3) Individualized attention and services based on the unique learning style of the individual
4) Community experience and integration
5) Community work opportunities integrated with typical non disabled employees
6) Gross motor and varied physical tasks rather than sit down fine finger dexterity assembly tasks
7) An emphasis on community placements, tryouts, risk taking, rather than behavioral readiness before being referred for placement.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
To help you to obtain a program with these characteristics, here is a list of questions that you may want to ask providers of vocational services for persons with autism:
1) What activities or vocational experiences can the individual participate in to enhance vocational development?
2) What work skills are needed to foster increased productivity and placement in supported or competitive employment
3) What supports are needed to obtain and retain long term employment in the community
4) What learning styles, communication techniques and behavioral techniques are most beneficial for the individual’s development
5) Where are additional resources located that can help with the
6) Which job sites and placements most match the individual’s needs and potential preferences
Overall, on the job training in local business with an individual or small
number of individuals supported by staff members and company employees are important factors for obtaining and retaining community employment opportunities.
Evaluating Program Effectiveness
Determining whether or not your son’s or daughter’s program is effective is as important as selecting a program in the first place. These questions may help you address whether the adult with autism is receiving appropriate effective services:
1) Does the program provide an intense, rich array of developmental experiences in vocational and employment areas that contain high expectations and challenges for each individual allowing for dignified risk taking and respecting the individual’s competencies and preferences
2) Does the program assist individuals in developing, maintaining, and obtaining more work skills to increase independence
3) Does the program provide the participants with a sampling of job opportunities in the community
4) Does the program maximize the earnings of each individual in the program
5) Does the program assist in acquiring social and communication competencies which will enable him/her to function more effectively in job settings and other environments
6) Does the program work toward reducing the individual’s dependence on staff through appropriate job matches and national supports in the
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2) Break times and lunch with co-workers at the job site in the community, i.e.,restaurants1) Supported employment in integrated settings
3) Banking of paychecks
4) Recreational activities, i.e., swimming, picnics, trips, etc.
5) Visitations to community agencies and institutions, i.e. Post offices, museums, etc.
In this article, I have attempted to briefly outline some of the significant community employment issues that arise when meeting the specialized vocational and employment needs of persons with autism.
Smith, M., Belcher, R., and Juhrs, P. (1995) A Guide to Successful Employment for Individuals with Autism. Paul Brookes Publishing: P.O. Box 10624; Baltimore, MD 21285; 800-638-3775.
The Massachusetts Chapter of the Autism Society of America, 781-237-0272
The Autism Society ofAmerica, national office, 800-3-autism.