It’s Better for Autistic People to Work in Independent Environments

For more than a century, authorities have recommended putting disabled people to work in what are known as sheltered workshops, where they complete simple, repetitive tasks that don’t provide meaningful training for the workplace, let alone emotional rewards.

Employees are typically underpaid, and have few opportunities to engage with the outside community. While disability rights activists have been pushing back on the sheltered workshop model for decades, it’s taken longer for others to join in, and a new study provides some important information about how sheltered workshops can potentially harm the very people they’re supposed to help.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University took a look at 153 autistic adults and their levels of participation and engagement in the workplace, paying particular attention to the level of independence they were provided with as employees. The long-term study looked at how working environments shaped social skills, the ability to complete tasks of daily living and the level of autism symptoms. What the researchers found was that those working in relatively independent placements had more positive outcomes, developing more confidence, better social skills and more engagement with the community. The same did not hold true for those in sheltered workshop placements.

Two important findings emerge from this study. The first is that employment in general benefits autistic people (and disabled people in general). It provides opportunities to be active in the community, promotes independence and helps people add value to their lives, with many disabled people actively valuing and enjoying their work — contrary to common social attitudes about disability and what it means to have an impairment, many disabled people want to and are willing to work, despite their low employment rate. Furthermore, the study illustrates that people provided with more independent, traditional working environments fare better overall than those who are constrained to sheltered workshops.

This finding was echoed by a study published almost two years ago showing that supported employment was a better option than sheltered workshops for people with more moderate to severe impairments. Those who worked in sheltered workshops ended up making less money, being less able to support themselves and costing more overall to support, versus those working in supported employment (where an aide accompanies a disabled person at work). One possible theory about the study results?

“Participating in sheltered workshops diminished the future outcomes achieved once individuals became competitively employed, perhaps because the skills and behaviors individuals learned in sheltered workshops had to be ‘unlearned’ in order for the workers to be successful in the community.” In other words, because sheltered workshops aren’t like real-world jobs, they don’t provide opportunities to acquire useful job skills. The National Disability Rights Network has accused sheltered workshops of being “little better than institutions” in terms of what they offer disabled people, and it seems the federal government would agree.

Last year, the Obama Administration started examining sheltered workshop environments more carefully, weighing the possibility of pushing for better employment options for members of the disability community. If successful, the push could change the landscape for disabled people in the workforce forever, and it might mark a major victory in the fight to turn away from sheltered workshops.


Photo credit: Sean MacEntee.


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Fred h
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you S. E. Smith, for Sharing this!

Kat Lover
Rekha S4 years ago

No I think autistic ppl should be able to work in normal environment. But we need to fight to make sure they get equal pay and equal treatment like everyone else.

Sue H.
Sue H4 years ago

Interesting read. I too think that each individual is different so closing sheltered workshops all together may not be the best answer.

JL A4 years ago

Thankfully the move is towards empowerment in many states' policies and this research supports why that is so important.

David Youmans
David Youmans4 years ago

I certainly hope that they get things to be more "Autistic friendly" in the workplace, but if the big corporations have any say, we'll all be little more than indentured servants within a decade...

I have two sons that are Autistic, so I might not be entirely objective on the subject, but I think that everyone should have the right and opportunity to work and feel constructive in their lives, whether it's working in a more secluded environment {which works better for some}, or working in a more public situation. When I was a kid, Autism was barely even mentioned, and very few were diagnosed, but with the science of psychology growing as it has, they've started get a more accurate diagnosis of it.

Either way, as a society, we need to make sure that people {and I mean all people}, have the opportunity to feel like they're contributing something to the world...

Alan Lambert
Alan Lambert4 years ago

This spamist is pretty bold, using a picture of (who I think is) S.E Cupp who was the conservative member of the Cycle on MSNBC and is now kissing Newt Gingrich's ummm, ring on CNN's Crossfire. Reported, of course. That said, while I'm not an expert in the needs of the Autistic, I'm fully conversant with the idea that each employee should be put into their most productive personal environment.

It's a win for the Company and a win for the employee. Easy Peasy, right?

Bob P.

thanks for the article

Olivia S.
Past Member 4 years ago

Thanks. I agree with Robert....the personality of the people is also a key factor to be considered.