For as long as I can remember, I have looked forward to having the opportunity to work. After all, we ask children in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up. We are encouraged to work hard in school, so that we can go on to have successful careers.
But what about those who are diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities? A recent study found that 1 in 3 young adults with autism had not found gainful employment, nearly seven years after graduating. Many adults with autism are given volunteer opportunities, or part-time, unpaid internships. Although these are important opportunities in order to help them increase their vocational skills, there comes a time when these individuals are ready to seek out meaningful employment, and receive compensation for their hard work.
Individuals with autism work diligently to become more independent across all areas of their lives. From the moment they start receiving services, children with developmental disabilities work on goals that will help them become more independent. For children, learning how to become more independent consists of working on Activities of Daily Living (ADL) skills, such as brushing their teeth, or getting dressed by themselves. As they grow older, learning to become more independent consists more of working on Independent Living (IL) skills, such as cooking and cleaning, traveling, and learning to manage finances.
The first time any of us really earn our own income is when we get a job. Whether this is part-time or full-time, we finally have the opportunity to earn our own money (the key words here being earn, and own). There is a certain sense of satisfaction and pride in being able to have your own money, and be able to do many more things as a result. Having a job, and earning wages, exponentially increases our independence.
For those on the autism spectrum, there are a number of obstacles that stand between them and gainful employment. Many individuals struggle with social cues, managing their emotions, dealing with different sensory triggers, following directions/instructions, planning and organizing, adapting to changes, and so on. Even the standard small talk of an office can be overwhelming to someone who has autism.
That being said, many adults on the spectrum would rather find ways to work through the challenges of being in a work environment, rather than not having the chance to work at all. It can be incredibly discouraging and frustrating to not have the opportunity to make money for yourself, and be able to use that money how you want to. The money we earn from working allows us to spend time with our friends, participate in different activities, buy clothes and other items for ourselves, even be able to eat what we want to! As much as there are different ways to supplement income for individuals with disabilities, it is not the same as earning your wages based on the work you have done. There is a difference between receiving an income, and earning one.
Many adults on the spectrum are aware of the limitations on what they can do when they do not have paid employment. In my experience, speaking with adults with autism about their goals, several have expressed to me how much they desired to have a job, just like I do. They were able to connect the fact that we were close in age, and that having a career is something they would like to do by a certain age as well. It is difficult to encourage someone with autism to become more independent, if they do not feel that they have the opportunity to do so.
Thankfully, there are more opportunities and initiatives for individuals with developmental disabilities to obtain employment. OPWDD is providing new ways for individuals to seek out meaningful work across the state. I have also observed more individuals attending college, which opens the doors for them to pursue a number of different careers. More initiatives are taking place to broaden the job opportunities that exist for individuals with developmental disabilities. With the proper supports in place, adults with autism can find success in different careers. For example, with the guidance of a job coach, an individual can learn to overcome their specific deficits and challenges in order to perform well at a job of their choice.
There are no guarantees in terms of whether or not any of us can obtain employment, disability or not. However, adults with autism and other developmental disabilities should be provided with the same opportunities as the rest of us, if it is something they would like to do and if it would be appropriate for them. Being a contributing and independent member of society is something that many adults on the autism spectrum highly value, and obtaining and maintaining gainful employment is an important way for them to achieve this.
Sara Giangiobbe, MAT serves as a Medicaid Service Coordination Supervisor in QSAC’s MSC Department. She has been serving in a multitude of roles with QSAC since 2004. In addition to her professional role in the field of autism and developmental disabilities, she has a younger brother who is diagnosed with autism. She is a proud sibling and professional, and is also a regular contributor to onQ, QSAC’s blog.