As children with autism grow to become teenagers, parents face some very common questions. Will they be able to get a job? Will they be able to get into college? How can I best help them prepare to get there?
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The answers to these questions partially depend on where a child falls on the autism spectrum. But with the right training and planning tailored to their capabilities, teens can find their path to a great job — and in many cases go on to college as well.
Autism therapist Courtney Gebura outlines ways parents can prepare their child for these outside-the-home milestones on their journey as a teen into growing into early adulthood.
Plan at a young age
Starting early lets children explore and develop their specific interests. As with any child growing up, teens with autism are figuring out what they want to be when they grow up.
The answer to them and to you as a parent is not always clear. That’s why they need time and space to experiment and change their minds about activities they uniquely enjoy or will personally do well in.
Vocation training for a child with autism typically starts around age 14. Starting this type of training and education early gives teens the time they need to develop real-world skills that will serve them in a job or in college later. This early treatment and education path focuses specifically on nurturing the many behaviors and tasks required at work or school.
Job options can depend on capabilities
“The benefits of real experience in the right environment that is specific to the teen can’t be overstated. A part-time job gives teens the chance to see what work life is like when a parent is not around,” Gebura says.
Typically, autism programs such as the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism help teenagers aim for one of three levels of job placement:
- Adult activity centers — These centers offer development of job training skills for lower-functioning individuals in a structured, supportive environment.
- Supported employment — Many agencies or offices offer jobs with built-in support systems like job coaches, for example. This is best for individuals who are capable of doing a job but can’t necessarily live and/or work independently.
- Competitive employment — This includes truly independent jobs for individuals. Employees must be able to both handle the responsibility of transportation to and from work and day-to-day work activities.
The value of both hard skills and soft skills
For people with autism, hard and soft skills are learned behaviors that can take time and effort to achieve. For individuals without autism these are much easier to learn.
That’s why it’s important for care teams and parents to not only teach your teen how to follow a set of procedures, but also incorporate life and social skills ahead of time so your teen will be prepared to put them into practice in their new school or workplace.
Vocational training teaches a variety of hard skills needed to perform job-specific responsibilities — for example, activity-based tasks like how to file records, make pizza boxes, organize inventory or prepare food. They can also learn transactional skills like how to log data, work with money, read a calendar or similar work-related tasks.
In addition to those hard skills it’s every bit as important for teens with autism to learn the right soft skills, too.
Scenarios at a typical job may be much more of a learned effort for teens with autism. So, the soft skill focus early on might be to teach the teen how to request a vacation day, practice safety skills, when to ask for a break, seek assistance from a supervisor or how to resolve a conflict with a coworker.
Parent involvement is important at every level
There’s a reason autism programs invite parents to observe their children in training. Not only does observation give parents a sense of what their children do well but it also provides ways to reinforce positive behavior at home.
Your role as a parent can also make a big impact beyond just observing and reinforcing.
If you have a teen that’s ready for competitive employment for example, you can take advantage of your own network for potential jobs. If they’re good at filing or bookkeeping, ask if local stores or businesses have part-time job openings. If they love working outdoors, a construction agency might be a good fit. If your teen has communication issues, customized employment might be more appropriate. Ask your transition team if they know of agencies with openings.
Considering college as an option
Many high-functioning kids do well in a structured academic environment like college. And many colleges and universities offer support services for older children or young adults with autism.
For example, some offer special floors in dorms with supportive resident advisers or academic coaches who understand and can work with their unique needs. A teen who excels in school may still face challenges in the new, social and sometimes scary world of college. But just as with job training, help is available at many schools.
Much of the same vocational training principles can also apply to the college prep process as your child strives to become more independent as a young adult. To help prepare them for college, it’s also ideal to help them develop social and communications skills for their new environment. You and your transition team should explore teaching skills related to self care, goal-setting, techniques to handle multi-tasking, and learning how to ask for help when things get to be challenging for them.
“Beginning early is key to allow for time and flexibility as your teen with autism continues to shape their own identity,” Gebura says. “As a parent, thinking about your child’s independence can of course be emotional, even a bit overwhelming. But focusing on these target areas for development will help you provide them with a great foundation for their future.”