Preparing Students with Autism for the Workforce

By Amy Schuiteboer

It’s one of the biggest fears of parents who have a child with autism: Will my child be able to support himself or herself by living and working independently after high school?

Statistically speaking, young adults with autism have lower employment rates and higher rates of social isolation than people with other disabilities. Two-thirds of young people with autism did not have a job two years after high school, according to a report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University—and only 58 percent ever have a job for pay outside of the home.

At Virginia Beach City Public Schools, we have had success in preparing our students with autism and other moderate to severe cognitive disabilities for life after high school, using a specially developed transition curriculum that combines video instruction with opportunities for hands-on learning.

The curriculum we are using is the Adapted version of Project Discovery, a transition curriculum from Education Associates. With the help of these thoughtfully designed instructional materials, many of our students are graduating with the abilities and the confidence they need to make it on their own.

The Adapted Series kits offer hands-on materials, simplified text and worksheets, and integrated audio and visual supports to help students with special needs learn both job-related tasks and basic life skills. The kits cover the most common jobs that students with autism and other cognitive disabilities are likely to find in their community, such as grocery clerk, retail clerk, or cleaning and maintenance worker.

At Salem High School, where I work, about 20 students in two special-education classrooms focus on transition skills during one of their 90-minute instructional blocks. We’re on a rotating schedule, and so the students receive five blocks of instruction in job and life skills every two weeks.

As part of this instruction, students watch short video clips that introduce them to the various jobs and what they involve. Then, they get to put these skills into practice using hands-on materials. For instance, the grocery clerking module includes paper, plastic, and reusable bags for students to practice bagging actual groceries.

Taking a hands-on approach has proven to be very effective with students. We demonstrate a skill, we do it together, and then the kids are able to do it themselves.

Our use of this specially adapted transition curriculum is making a big difference. Across the entire school division, we have seen at least 40 percent growth in the performance of our students from pretest to posttest. And on the performance-based assessments that are built into the program, we are seeing consistent threes and fours from our kids on a four-point scale.

Of course, none of that means much if students aren’t able to find a job once they graduate, and we have achieved success in this respect as well. We have had students with autism and other cognitive disabilities go on to gain employment as baggers at grocery stores, as clerks at retail stores such as Dollar Tree, T.J. Maxx, and Marshalls, and as housekeeping or banquet staff at local hotels.

The feedback I have heard from employers tells me the program is working. In my job as a transition specialist, employers would often say to me, “Wow, Amy! We don’t have to spend time training these kids now, because they’re already coming to us with the skills they need.”

Watching students feel success, often for the first time in many years, is quite significant. To help them find something they are good at and can have fun with—while also being able to support themselves financially—is incredibly rewarding.

Amy Schuiteboer is the school improvement specialist for Virginia Beach City’s Salem High School.

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