October is National Disability Employment Awareness month. I struggled for years with employment; I am now gainfully employed going on 13.6 years in the mental health field and 18 years part-time as a professor of theology and speak at over 70 events a year. As I refined my talents and special interest, employment opportunities followed.
By Ron Sandison
My greatest struggle with autism was not my speech delay, sensory processing issues, meltdowns, learning disabilities, or even social interaction, though these were all a challenge for me.
My greatest challenge was finding employment. Only 3% of people with autism are gainfully employed in the US. I did not experience gainful employed until age 32 even though I had two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s.
For the last 13.6 years I have been gainfully employed in the mental health field as a psychiatric care specialist (nurse tech) and 18 years part-time as a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. I founded Spectrum Inclusion to empower young adults with autism & Asperger’s for employment and independence.
The best description I heard of the challenges of autism and employment was from a co-worker with Asperger’s. When I worked at Cross Roads for Youths, a coworker, I will call, Mr. Ellison, who had a master’s degree in social-work and was diagnosed as a teenager with Asperger’s told me:
People like me with Asperger’s are the last to be hired and the first to be fired. I just lack the social skills to read people and the social graces to say things that don’t offend. I have been fired from my share of jobs the past few years by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time! The only job I am able to maintain is a taxicab driver because clients are forced to listen to my stories since I am in the driver’s seat.
Employment and transition into adulthood can be extremely difficult for young adults with disabilities or autism and discouraging. I will share five ways you can empower your child with a disability for employment and transition into adulthood. My parents implemented these rules of transition while raising me and I am now enjoying the fruits of their labor.
1. Teach your child basic life skills and include them in your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).
Most high school seniors look forward to graduating with expectations of attending college or a trade school in their pursuit of a career. Many young adults with autism when graduating, fear the future and feel anxiety with transition to adulthood. Especially moving out of their parents’ home or attending college.
Transition can include: completing school, gaining employment, participating in postsecondary education, contributing to a household, participating in community, and experiencing satisfactory personal and social relationships. Skills an individual with disabilities and autism need to develop for successful transition are: self-management, self-determination, self-care, and community involvement.
Only 58% percent of high school students with autism had a transition plan by age 14, as required by federal law. Temple Grandin wrote,
About fifty thousand people with ASD turn eighteen every year in the United States alone. That’s a little late to be thinking about adulthood. I tell parents that by the time their ASD kids are eleven or twelve, the parents should be thinking about what the kids are going to do when they grow up. Nobody needs to make a final decision at that point, but the parents should start considering the possibilities so that they have time to help prepare the child.
Parents share a responsibility for their children learning basic skills that will enable them to function within society and gain employment. Some of the essential skills include: proper hygiene, a healthy self-esteem, dependability, diplomacy, polite manners, self-advocacy, and workplace politics. In your child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), have these qualities listed as learning objectives and goals include tangible ways of applying them in the classroom. My parents worked diligently with my teachers in developing my IEP’s so I’d learn skills for transitioning into adulthood and be employable.
2. Don’t allow hopelessness to hinder your child’s ability to transition into adulthood.
Every milestone and major event in my life took me longer then my peers and brothers. I graduated from high school at 20, I was 35 before I had a long term relationship, 36 when I moved out of my parents’ home, 37 when I got married, 41 when I became a father, 42 when my first book was published, and 46 when my third book Views from the Spectrum was published this past May. These delays in achievements can be very depressing and can create learned hopelessness which hinders growth.
Learned helplessness is behavior that occurs when an individual endures repeatedly painful or otherwise aversive stimuli which he or she is unable to escape from or avoid. The fruit of hopelessness is despair, lack of motivation, fear to try new things, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
Praise and self-efficacy were instrumental for me overcoming my hopeless complex. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to execute the actions necessary to achieve desired outcomes. Deborah Reber whose son has Asperger’s wrote:
I’m convinced that the greatest gift we can give our differently-wired kids is the knowledge of who they are, how their brains works, and what they need to do to create the life they want. Because when we guide our children along the path of self-discovery, they can feel good about themselves, develop self-advocacy skills, and ultimately grow up to be self-realized adults.
3. In transition small accomplishments bring forth growth for the future.
In my life small accomplishments were the seeds to my success with relationships, academics and employment. Some small learning steps can occur by family choirs, volunteer work, and early employment outside the home.
Family chores develop skills for transitioning into adulthood because they require self-management, negotiation and problem-solving skills. Parenting expert, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, shares the importance of family chores:
Adults think they’re helping children by doing these tasks themselves, or outsourcing them. In fact, not giving them simple household chores deprives kids of the chance to build skills and be useful. Just think about how disorienting and demoralizing it is for adults to find themselves jobless—is it any surprise that children without any real responsibilities are increasingly anxious and depressed? Moreover, parents miss the opportunity to connect with kids while teaching them cleaning, laundry, cooking, bike repair, lawn work,nd other necessary tasks.
Children and young adults with autism love routines, and family chores can be a daily routine. Have your child do his chores at the same time each day, after dinner, or before homework. This will teach him to be organized, boosting self-confidence as well as raising his sense of responsibility. Some good family chores are: watering planets, folding laundry, emptying the dishwasher, vacuuming, making the bed, simple food prep, and feeding a pet.
An instructive technique is to develop “first, then” language to reward for chores. “First dishes, then TV.” This way, your child knows the order of things and what to expect when. Your child can’t expect the reward of TV or video games until the dishes are completed. This allows you to give your child the reward without negative thinking, like “If the dishes are not done then you cannot watch TV or play video games.” Spinning it the other way sets your child into a more productive and positive mindset.
Children develop social skills and learn teamwork by volunteering. Through volunteer work your child also participates in the community, breaks free from isolation, experiences a sense of achievement, and makes new friends. The Humane Society, YMC, Habitat for Humanity, food pantries, local libraries, art museums are great places for volunteer work.
A recent job study found that 42% of people responsible for hiring workers consider volunteer work equal to full-time work experience. One out of every five managers responsible for hiring in the U.S. hired a candidate because of their volunteer experience.
Early employment prepared me for transition to college and a career. My dad had a protestant work ethic and encouraged me to be employed from an early age. His moto was 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
When I was twelve years old, I was cutting our acre lawn with a heavy push-lawnmower for 10 dollars a week. I had my first job outside the home at age fourteen as a busboy. Having a job from an early age empowered me to learn life skills such as budgeting and saving money, dealing with angry customers, and making friends with coworkers. All these skills were seeds to independence and a career.
4. Focus on your child’s interests to compensate for disabilities and weaknesses.
Special interests leads to independence. When I was seven-years-old my mom gave me for Christmas a stuffed animal of a prairie dog. From kindergarten until eighth grade prairie dogs were my special interest. In the 80’s most boys played with their GI Joe, He-Man, Star Wars, toys, and Atari video games —I carried around a stuffed prairie dog named Prairie Pup. I quickly became an expert on my unique interest and could describe every detail about a prairie dogs’ life.
My mom harnessed my love for animals and prairie dogs to teach me art, reading, and writing. Prairie Pup was instrumental in teaching me social skills and gaining confidence with communicating with girls. The girls in my third grade class created stylish outfits for Prairie Pup; one dressed Prairie in a cowboy costume, another as an astronaut. One even made him a Victorian dress.
In fourth grade, I won the Detroit Edison Drawing contest for Oakland County by creating a poster with Prairie Pup and his furry friends building a tree fort near electrical wires. The caption on the poster stated, “Don’t Become a Furry Fried Friend by Building Your Fort Near Power Lines.” For the prize, Prairie and I met the captain of the Pistons basketball team, Isiah Thomas, who was later inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
Jasmine Lee O’Neill, an author with autism, advice to parents,
Use things the autistic individual enjoys to spark her interests. If she likes music and hums to herself, use music as an introduction to relating to other people. It is a falsehood that autistics do not relate. Rather, they relate in their own ways.
Don’t squash your child’s special interests exploit them to build skills to transition into adulthood.
5. Finally, don’t be a dictator. Let your child choose what adulthood looks like for him or her.
Don’t think your child needs to be like you to be happy. Being an adult means making decisions for yourself.
A year ago, I was remind of this truth by a young adult with autism. This young adult sent me a message on Facebook, stating, “My mom read your books and articles. After reading your writings, she began hounded me, “Ron’s autistic and has a family so why can’t you also get married and make me a grandmother?” I don’t want to have children or get married—with my sensory issues to sound—a loud child would drive me insane and make me miserable! P.S could you please, write my mom and let her know how I feel and that being a father would not be a good thing for me?”’
I talked with this man on the phone and emailed his mother. I shared with her that her son is a mature young man and she needs to treat him like an adult and let him make choices for himself.
Kelly Williams Brown, author of Adulting: How to become a Grown-up in 535 Easy(ish) Steps says,
Adult isn’t a noun; it’s a verb. It’s the act of making correctly those small decisions that fill our day. It is something that you can practice and that can be done in concrete steps.
As you give your child chances to make choices and mistakes, he or she will gain wisdom and transition into adulthood with confidence. Transitioning into adulthood requires you to teach your child to set goals and develop skills for independence and employment. The key to my success was self-efficacy—the confidence to try new things and not be afraid to fail. I am currently writing my fourth book on Autism, Growth & Transitioning into Adulthood and have 9 out of 12 chapters complete.
For more information, please reference my video on Empowering Children with Autism & Learning Challenges to Thrive:
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every article I read about autism and employment is in regards to gainful employment. What about self-employment? What’s wrong with also encouraging self-employment and people on the spectrum developing their own businesses, companies, inventions, freelancing, entrepreneurship, etc? What’s wrong with giving individuals on the spectrum a choice between the two? Shouldn’t people with autism who choose these career paths get equal attention to gainful employment situations as well? Why doesn’t any article on autism and employment ever mention, encourage or feature articles written by self-employed individuals on the spectrum as well? What’s wrong with individuals with autism choosing self-employment as a career path? Development of one’s own business, businesses, or companies? Inventing/inventions? Entrepreneurship? Freelancing? Why always only mention gainful employment? I just don’t get it. Gainful employment isn’t the answer, isn’t realistic, isn’t the choice, or/and isn’t an appropriate option for everyone on the spectrum. Again, not everyone on the spectrum can realistically be successfully gainfully employed whether it be long-term or otherwise. Shouldn’t this career path (self-employment) or/and career choice get equal attention?
I agree that self-employed autistics should also be featured. I have done both independent contractor work and freelanced for the local newspaper. I am in the process of starting my own business. People should realize that without someone having a vision and taking a risk, they would not even have a job at all.
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