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Employment and Asperger Syndrome

By Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Graduating from high school and transitioning to the world of work is an extremely important and exciting milestone. However, for many young adults with Asperger Syndrome (AS), employment can present some unique challenges. Despite the vastly increasing numbers of individuals being diagnosed with AS, adult services for this population are seriously lacking. Many young adults with AS live at home, are unemployed or underemployed, or participate in programs that are inappropriate or unhelpful, leaving parents worried about what the future holds for their adult children. Yet individuals with AS bring many strengths to the work place, such as attention to detail, trustworthiness, reliability, and low absenteeism. In addition, aspects of jobs that other employees may find unattractive, including social isolation or repetitiveness, often appeal to persons with AS.

Although demands for employment services for adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are increasing, currently there are few specialized services available and not much is known about how best to support those with AS. However, there are some strategies which may help empower young adults with AS to achieve rewarding, satisfying employment, and make meaningful contributions to their community and society as a whole. Strategies discussed here will emphasize the fundamentals, or “employment philosophies,” such as helping the individual realize what employment actually means, what jobs are like, and some of the realities of employment. These issues are critical for helping the young adults understand the importance of employment and the magnitude of the role it will (hopefully) play in their life.

Successful Employment: Preparation

Understanding the purpose of employment is critical for ensuring enthusiasm and motivation for the transition to the world of work. If the adolescent with AS does not fully grasp the fundamentals such as how important getting a job is going to be for them and why, a successful transition will be much harder to achieve. For adolescents who are used to having all their needs met by their parents, the idea of having to get a job is often not particularly appealing and may not seem urgent. Many adolescents with AS may be reluctant to even think about life after high school, when everything will change and there will be even greater expectations of them. It will be critical to spend time thinking about why it is important to have a job; what it means to have a job; what an employer is looking for in an employee; why being “independent” is important, etc.

Building a positive attitude and excitement about getting a job is also important. The young adult can be reminded of why this transition is so positive, e.g. they will have their own money, they will meet new people, they will learn new skills, they will have something to do during the day, they will increase their self-confidence and improve their self-image, etc. Employment can be talked about as something which will be exciting and enjoyable. Making plans for the future, setting goals adolescents would like to reach, and discussing how these goals can be achieved, will help maintain enthusiasm for employment, and also serve as a reminder that they need to be realistic in their employment expectations.

It is also important that young adults with AS have opportunities to gain insight in to the huge variety of job options available and what these jobs are like. Well before high school graduation, adolescents can be encouraged to consider what career paths may suit them. Due to the abstract nature of imagining what a particular job would be like, it can be difficult for anyone to decide what job might be a good match. Constant observation and discussion of what other people are doing while you are out in the community can be helpful. This exercise can help the adolescent recognize the huge variety of possible jobs (e.g. sales clerk, manager, construction worker, engineer, librarian, etc.). Whilst observing others, or engaging in activities, questions can be asked such as: “What jobs are people doing when I go to McDonalds?” There are the cashiers, the cooks, their managers, people who work where the food comes from (farms, processing plants), workers designing and manufacturing the packaging, building the restaurant, corporate management of the business/ franchise, jobs in the banks that provide the financing etc. “What jobs are involved in making this computer and getting it to me?” Answers could include designing the computer, manufacturing the parts of the computer, buying the parts from other companies that go into the computer, software design, managing the people that do these jobs, sales and marketing, accounting, advertising, shipping, retail, etc. Adolescents can be encouraged to ask themselves questions such as: What would these jobs be like? How would I get a job like that?

Another useful strategy is simply asking people the young adult meets (including friends and relatives) questions about their jobs such as: How did you get your job? What do you like/ dislike about it? What qualifications do you need? How much do you get paid? (if appropriate), etc. People may be willing for the adolescent to visit their work sites for job shadowing experiences, where the adolescent can observe people at work for a couple of days. This will help enormously in exposing the young adult to a variety of jobs (not only the individual s/he is shadowing, but also all the others who work there), work environments, and realities of employment. Better still, actually volunteering at a company or organization will enable young adults to get hands on experience and try out different jobs. In addition, they can record these experiences on their resume, and have sources for obtaining references. Even if the volunteer experience is not a great match to the adolescent’s interests, s/he can learn a variety of skills that would be applicable to any job, such as responsibility, punctuality, reliability, interacting and communicating with others. S/he can also learn some of the realities of work such as having to do tasks which are less enjoyable, having to do things the way other people tell you to, only taking breaks at specific times, workplace rules such as no personal phone calls, no internet, etc.

Regarding the job application process itself, after some practice, searching for jobs, completing application forms, and preparing an eye-catching resume may or may not pose particular problems for individuals with AS. The internet provides some very useful resources in these areas and beyond, including free job interest inventories, statistics on various job categories such as typical salary and necessary qualifications, lots of examples of resumes, job hunting tips, as well as the websites for various companies and organizations where the individual may be interested in working. However, some young adults with AS may need a lot of support through this stage of the job search, due to their difficulties with executive functioning.

There are some potentially greater obstacles specific to the communication and social skills deficits seen in AS that relate to the job application process. These may include coordinating the job search process, communicating with potential employers by telephone, and identifying and tapping the individual’s social network for employment leads (often the most successful approach to finding a job). To coordinate the job search process, set up a table with columns for job title applied for, when applied, how applied, contact person, follow up date etc. Job seekers with AS can practice using the telephone by first calling relatives and others they know, and slowly expanding this to individuals they know less well, perhaps the doctor’s office or hair salon, and finally to potential employers. A script can be implemented to help the conversation go smoothly and ensure that the young adult gets all the information about the job or the next steps that they need to take. A “spider-gram” can be used to help the young adult brainstorm and identify all the individuals in their immediate and expanded social network.

The job interview may pose the most significant challenge for adults with AS, due to deficits in social skills and in “mindreading.” Parents and family members can play an important role in conducting realistic mock job interviews, where the young adult can practice appropriate behavior and learn how to answer typical job interview questions such as: Why do you want this job? Why should I hire you and not someone else? What are your strengths/weaknesses?

Successful Employment: Strategies in the Workplace

Once young adults with AS begins their jobs, it may be useful for them or their supervisor to distribute a brief handout to co-workers describing AS and some of the characteristics the individual may present with. This will help co-workers understand the behavior of the young adult, and perhaps be more supportive. Identifying a co-worker who can serve as a mentors is also a useful strategy. Supervisors can be asked whether there are any employees who are familiar with AS or other types of disability, and who might be willing to serve in this role. This person can serve as an initial “go to” person when the young adult needs advice, or if problems arise. The mentor can also help integrate the young adult socially in to the workplace, which is critical for job retention and job satisfaction.

Providing supervisors with specific strategies for supporting the employee will also be helpful. Although more employers will be familiar with AS than in the past, they may still have little idea of how to best support someone with AS in the workplace. Strategies used in the classroom remain extremely useful and are often easily adapted to the work place. For example, encourage supervisors to:

  • Clearly define the job task; what exactly is expected?
  • Break tasks down into smaller components if possible.
  • Provide immediate, honest feedback on performance.
  • Provide as much routine and predictability as possible.
  • Provide predictable routines as much as possible.
  • Minimize oral verbal instructions (perhaps provide written instructions), and allow time to respond.
  • Provide models of the specific job skill.
  • Allow the individual to complete one task before beginning another.
  • Provide prioritized checklists and timelines for tasks.
  • Provide a strategy to communicate when the employee needs help or has not understood.
  • The individual may not easily interpret body language or sarcasm, read between the lines, etc. Clear communication is critical; lack of communication between employees with AS and their supervisors is a main cause of job termination.
  • Be sensitive to/accommodate any sensory issues the individual may present with that interferes with work.
  • Explain authority hierarchy, to help prevent co-workers possibly taking advantage of the employee with AS.
  • Encourage social interactions with co-workers.
  • Explain the formal and informal rule structure of how things work at that job site. Explain unwritten (often social) rules of the workplace.

Meeting with other adults with AS can also be helpful during this transition. These peers can provide advice and discuss their employment experiences from an AS perspective, and help the individual realize s/he is not alone in experiencing certain challenges. Finding social groups for young adults with AS can be difficult, but they are increasing in number. Also, email chat groups on the internet can be found easily.

Building a career brings positive and negative experiences for everyone. Remind the young adult with AS that mistakes and failures are useful learning experiences, to help them maintain a positive attitude towards employment when things don’t go according to plan. Quitting jobs, declining jobs, and sometimes even accepting jobs, can result in negative consequences— but these too can be seen as providing important information and lessons for future decision making.

Although it can be difficult, it is important for parents to allow their young adult children to become more independent, and to treat them as the adults they are. Allowing them to make their own decisions and choices—with guidance—will help them achieve employment success.

Please see: http://faculty.uml.edu/ahillier/aspirations.htm

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