Dr. Gerhardt is Executive Director of The Epic School in Paramus, New Jersey and has more than 30 years experience utilizing the principles of Applied Behavior Analysis in support of individuals with autism spectrum disorders in educational, employment, residential and community-based settings. Dr. Gerhardt is the author or the coauthor of many articles and book chapters on the needs of adolescents and adults with ASDs and has presented nationally and internationally on this topic.  Dr. Gerhardt serves on many professional advisory boards in addition to the Autism Society’s Panel of Professional Advisors.

Employment and Individuals on the Autism Spectrum

Adulthood is a complex state of being.  Adult life presents both risks and benefits in such diverse areas as employment, relationships, sexuality, transportation, advocacy, social interaction, healthcare management, leisure, and independent living (e.g., Wehmeyer, & Schalock, 2001).  Unfortunately, “young adults with autism have a difficult time following high school for almost any outcome you choose – working, continuing school, living independently, socializing and participating in the community, and staying healthy and safe” (Roux, et al, 2015, p. 8).  More recently, Roux, et al (2017) reported that, out of a relatively large sample of adults with ASD, only 14% were engaged in paid, community employment and around 25% of all adults had no adult program at all.

This is problematic given that employment is considered a significant hallmark of adulthood in the typical world. What we do for a living is often considered an indication of status and, by implication, our contribution to society at large.  Exclusion from employment, therefore, has significant negative implications across most, if not all, domains of adult life.

One reason for the persistent low levels of employment may be a faulty understanding of what skills are, and are not, work skills. For example, as part of an adolescent’s or young adult’s transition IEP, significant instructional time and effort are often spent teaching “job skills” such as assembly, packaging, collating, boxing, stocking, sweeping, wiping, data entry, mailing, etc.   This cohort of skills, however, doesn’t often easily generalize from the classroom to the place of employment and, just as importantly, could probably be more effectively taught on-the-job as the environment there is generally designed to support to the skill.   Instead, we should be targeting those skills most directly related to successful employment which are, adaptive behavior skills.  Adaptive behavior is basically everything you do that is not purely academic and includes those skills that allow the individual to meet standards of personal independence that would be required of typical peers in similar situations  Adaptive behavior changes as a function of a person’s age, environmental demands, and cultural expectations (Heward, 2009) and is central to an individual’s ability to effectively and independently navigate his or her environment (Mazefsky, Williams, & Minshew, 2008).

Unfortunately, space does not allow me to offer a comprehensive curriculum of essential adaptive behavior skills.   A very short list however, would include such skills as public restroom use, self-management, purchasing, polite eating, personal hygiene, maintaining person space, social greetings, problem solving, self-correction, engagement and rate of production, cell phone use, asking for help, and so on.  But the complexity of these skills coupled with the limited resources available in the adult service system means that after graduation, effective and efficient intervention can be difficult, at best.  So if production related job-skills can be more effectively taught at the work place in the community and adaptive skills might be more effectively taught using the fiscal and personnel resources guaranteed by IDEA and the Transition IEP, perhaps that is what we need to do moving forward. We need to make a simple, but critical, reversal of instructional priorities.

Each year a small army of young adults with autism leave the entitlement-based world of special education and enter the already overwhelmed and under-funded world of non-entitlement adult services where employment is often the stated goal.  Unfortunately, many of these young men and women enter the adult system without the skills necessary to work, live, and play as independently as possible in their community.  By using the resources available through IDEA to prioritize adaptive behavior intervention rather than production-related work skills we can better equip this army of young adults to be successfully employment and active members of their community.

Heward, W. L. (2009). Exceptional children: An introduction to special education (9th  ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Mazefsky, C.A., Williams, D.L., & Minshew, N.J. (2008). Variability in adaptive  behavior in autism: Evidence for the importance of family history. Journal of  Abnormal Child Psychology, 36, 591-599

Roux, Anne M., Rast, Jessica E., Anderson, Kristy A., and Shattuck, Paul T. National Autism  Indicators Report: Developmental Disability Services and Outcomes in Adulthood.  Philadelphia, PA: Life Course Outcomes Program, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University, 2017.

Roux, AM,  Shattuck, P, Rast, JE. Rava, JA, & Anderson, KA. (2015) National Autism Indicators  Report: Transition into Young Adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Life Course Outcomes  Research Program, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University

Wehmeyer, M.L. & Schalock, R.L. (2001). Self determination and quality of life:  Implications for special education services and supports. Focus on Exceptional  Children, 33, 1-16.