Teaching Today’s Autistic Students to be Tomorrow’s Workers

A week ago, I met with my son Charlie’s teachers, therapists, behaviorist and case manager for a meeting to discuss his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the document that details the services, teaching methodologies, and educational plans for a child with disabilities. As Charlie will be 14 years old in May, this meeting was also a transition meeting, where we started to talk about what will happen for Charlie when school ends for him: Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Charlie is entitled to a ‘free and appropriate education’ until he is 21 years old.


Thinking about what will happen when the little yellow school bus stops coming can evoke a sense of fear and, I’ll be honest, terror, even in the parents who’ve endured being told ‘there’s not much you can hope for’ when their child was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2; slugging it out for years with school administrators to get an education that is ‘appropriate’; repeating the sound /m/ thousands of times over so your child will say it clearly, hanging onto your child when he’s in the middle of a severe ‘neurological storm and flailing with all his might at every hard surface in your car while it’s in motion.

I started blogging about Charlie almost six years ago, in June of 2005, with the sole intention of trying to let others know that, while life raising Charlie can be very difficult, it’s a good life and he deserves to have the best that we can provide him with. I didn’t expect I’d end up blogging about revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East: Blogging has been quite an education for me. In the course of writing online about autism, I’ve come into communication with many adults on the autism spectrum, and many parents of older children, and so, a couple of years ago I took a deep breath and started to think about what happens after Charlie turns 21?

Consequently, I was more than prepared when the case manager at the IEP meeting said to me, ‘Have you thought about what you want for Charlie after he turns 21?’ Yes, indeed, we have:

  • We’d like him to have a job, preferably in a community setting with a job coach. But if a sheltered workshop is deemed a more appropriate placement, that will be all right: The main goal is that Charlie has some job (preferably full-time, but part-time is certainly all right too.)
  • We plan for Charlie to live in some sort of community housing or group home, perhaps in a shared apartment with 24/7 staff. But we are not on a timetable for this: If there is no housing that we think appropriate, and safe, for Charlie, he can live with us as long as necessary (while we do recognize, that can’t be for the duration of his life).

The February 20th Star Tribune notes that ‘autistic workers can help firms grow’: 

Officials from 3M, Best Buy and Cargill gave the crowd countless examples of how employees “on the spectrum” had helped their companies. Buckner unveiled a pilot program at Cargill for autistic students in high school. Best Buy launched an e-learning website to help workers develop social skills and better read facial expressions and nonverbal language.

Charlie, after he is 21, would prefer to have a job. He likes to be busy. He is off from school today for President’s Day. Knowing that it was Monday, he got up early (before 5am) and, by 9am, we had gone for a walk around the neighborhood in the morning snow, shopped for groceries, did laundry, and made brownies. Charlie will have a similarly busy schedule when he moves up to the secondary school program at the county autism center he attends, as the students there switch activities as frequently as every half-hour. Charlie has already begun vocational training and seems to be showing a real knack, and an interest, in assembling thing, and not just mailings with flyers and papers: He’s working on putting sprinklers together.

Other students, as a recent New York Times article details, are learning invaluable job and social skills by running a café in their public school in Edison; I’ve heard of similar programs in which special ed students do everything from make coffee to handle the money elsewhere, in Maryland, for instance. Other programs exist in which students make and sell cookies and pasta; deliver flowers; wash cars.

Some of these programs are, like the café (which is for the middle school’s faculty), set in public schools. Such programs provide autistic students with the chance to interact with others, while students in a separate school like my son’s don’t have such chances. While we would like Charlie to have a job in the community someday, at the moment it has been best for him to be in a separate school to learn the skills he need, in an environment where everyone is trained to attend to his needs.

Charlie used to attend an in-district autism program, but behavior and sensory issues made such too difficult for him a few years ago. If he is able to get these under control, he will start ‘job sampling’ and go to visit different job sites with other students in a few years. It doesn’t usually get said in upbeat articles about job prospects for autistic children like the one in the New York Times, but ‘behavior problems’ are the gorilla in the room that means that some kids may have more limited options.

As it is, I don’t think Charlie might be at his best working something like a café or restaurant, though he might (if he can handle the noise) like working in a kitchen: He would make sure every last spoon was shiny and dried nice and clean. Just as he does not want to miss a day of school, Charlie would not want to miss a day of work and once he knows what he should do, he’s glad to do it. What more could you want in an employee?


Previous Care2 Coverage


Sharp Drop-off in Services for Autistic Students After High School

Separate Schools Over Inclusion?: Gov Christie’s Plan for Autism Schools in Every NJ Country

Photo of students at the Gong-Gong Garden and Putt-Putt Golf Course Grand Opening by gkhorticulture.  Go here to learn more about the students, who are members of the Grace King Horticulture Club; the students are on the autism spectrum and their 'vision is to make any place a better space.'


Grace Adams
Grace Adams7 years ago

I believe many of the disabled here end up in a community service employment program. Those who have Social Security Disability need to avoid earning more than a certain small amount each month to avoid losing the whole Social Security benefit package including health care.

Merelen Knitter
Merelen Knitter7 years ago

There is a local business here that employs mostly workers with various learning disabilities. I got to go on a tour, and it was fantastic to see the different ways they had set up the different jobs. The tour guide even commented that their regular workers make less mistakes than other, non disabled, workers did when they came into help out. The employees clearly enjoyed their work, and they loved showing us how it was done.

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Cindy Burgess
Cindy Burgess7 years ago

I attended a Transition Conference and was amazed to hear of a person with Down's Syndrome who had a wonderful, well-paying job at a hospital as a sterilization tech. She had vacation and healthcare benefits and a retirement fund. The hospital drew outlines of the tools on the trays and after she sterilized the tool she just matched it with the outline. She had only made one mistake in the many years she had worked there. The issue we were discussing at the conference was the idea of meaningful work, not just sorting recycling. There is also a school/sheltered workshop in Sherman Oaks, California that is teaching young people with autism to work in the animation field. That also seems better than sorting through trash. We parents see gifts in our children and so much hope and pray that those gifts can be used but the 75 to 80% unemployment rate for people with autism is a distressing fact. That means if you are born disabled, you are doomed to poverty as so-called "Supplemental" Security Income pays too little to even pay rent and SSA's rules prevent the saving of more than $2000. The result is slightly better than the English poor houses of old as the person can probably get food stamps, medicaid and on the waiting list for Section 8 housing, if they are able to live on their own at all. There aren't very many clean, safe, housing options for the people who have some intelligence and skill and think they can be independent (but probably can't).

Cindy Burgess
Cindy Burgess7 years ago

I've never read that people with autism lack a moral sense. One of my twin girls has a very rigid sense of what is right and what is wrong. I thought she was going to get beat up when she was young for tattling on kids on the playground who were breaking the rules. She is now 19 and was very upset that an 18 year old high school friend was drinking, smoking pot, and having sex and wanted me to tell her parents. She also spends lots of time listening to friends' sad stories of drama and trauma. The other used to tell people she met on the street to stop smoking, it was bad for them. She goes into total defense mode if she sees someone bullying another or harming an animal--even one so small as a bumble bee. I am very proud of my girls' who will spring into action to help someone who is hurt physically. Sometimes they go too far in giving away the shirt on their back and are prime targets for people taking advantage of them. Now, it is true my girl that defends others and animals has on 3 or more occasions taken something that she felt she needed and I have heard of other autistic kids doing that. It is usually something small, of little value, such as a canning jar from a neighbor's open garage that she "needed" to catch a spider. It is not that they don't have a sense of morals--of what is right and what is wrong. I do find that they do tend to lack empathy for their parents and all they have to go through--but they aren't the only ones. They are also too blunt.

Vicky H.
Past Member 7 years ago

Thank you for a positive story.

Ann S.
Ann Sasko7 years ago


Ioana Boca
Ioana B7 years ago

Positive story,tk you

Sara O.
Sara O7 years ago

Kristen, good luck with Charlie's transition. I've worked with grads/post-grads and helped developed transition plans. Not all parents are as realistic and well-informed as you and your husband. I can't imagine how difficult it is, and some parents have a hard time "giving up" their now-grown children.

Sara O.
Sara O7 years ago

Penelope P, you are misinformed about people with autism. Your comment is offensive to the millions of workers with a disability - including autism spectrum disorder - and I hope you'll be encouraged to learn more and open your mind a bit. It sounds like you had a "bad experience" with someone but you can't generalize that experience across the board.

People with autism sometimes do lack social skills that are needed to be successful in community environments, but that's why there are job coaching and other supports in place for people with disabilities in the workplace.

People without disabilities also need to be more accommodating, trusting, and compassionate. Disabled people belong to society and community just like we do - it's very close-minded to believe otherwise.