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How to Prepare Teens With Autism for Work or College

As a parent, you can help

Photo courtesy of Cleveland Clinic

As children with autism grow into teenagers, parents face simple but daunting questions: Will they be able to get a job? Will they be able to get into college?

The answers to these questions depend on where a child falls on the autism spectrum. But with the right training and planning — tailored to their capabilities — teens can find a path to a job and, in some cases, college.

As a parent, you can help.

Plan while they’re young

Vocation training typically starts around age 14. That’s in part because of state mandates, but also because starting early gives teens the time to develop skills that will serve them in a job or in college. In some cases, it may be useful to plan even earlier, focusing their education and treatment on developing skills that will translate into vocational skills.

Starting early also lets children explore and develop their interests. As with any child growing up, teens with autism are figuring out what they want to be when they grow up — and the answer is not always clear. They need time and space to experiment and change their minds.

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Options depend on capabilities

Typically, autism programs such as ours at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism help teenagers aim for one of three levels of job placement:

  • Adult activity centers: These centers offer employment for lower-functioning individuals in a structured, supportive environment.
  • Supported employment: Many agencies or offices offer jobs with built-in support systems, such as a job coach. This is best for individuals who are capable of doing a job but can’t necessarily live and/or work independently.
  • Competitive employment: This includes truly independent jobs for high-functioning individuals. Employees must be able to handle the responsibility of transportation and day-to-day work activities.

Job skills matter — but so do “soft” skills

Vocational training teaches hard skills: how to file records, how to make pizza boxes or work on food prep, how to log data, and so on. But for teens with autism, learning “soft skills” is every bit as important.

You might take for granted things that happen on the job every day. You know how to request a vacation day, when to seek assistance from a supervisor and how to resolve a conflict with a coworker. But for people with autism, these are learned behaviors. That’s why we don’t just teach them to follow a set of procedures; we teach life and social skills along the way.

Your help is crucial

There’s a reason autism programs invite parents to observe their children in training. Not only does observation give parents a sense of what their children do well, but it also gives them ways to reinforce positive behavior at home.

Your work as a parent doesn’t stop there, though. If you have a high-functioning teen, for example, take advantage of your network for potential jobs. If your son or daughter is good at filing or bookkeeping, ask if local stores or businesses have part-time job openings. If he or she is strong and loves working outdoors, a construction agency might be a good fit. If your teen has communication issues, supported employment is more appropriate. Ask your care team if they know of agencies with openings.

The benefits of real experience in the right environment can’t be overstated. A part-time job gives teens the chance to see what work life is like when mom and dad are not around.

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College may be an option

Many high-functioning kids do well in a structured academic environment. And many colleges and universities offer support services for them. For example, some offer special floors in dorms with supportive resident advisers or academic coaches who understand their unique needs.

That’s important. A teen who excels in school may still face challenges in the new, social and sometimes scary world of college. But just as with job training, help is available. A parent who’s willing to do the legwork and help find the right fit for their aspiring student can make a world of difference.

Courtney Gebura, Coordinator of Educational Services at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism, contributed to this post.

— Thomas Frazier II, PHD Cleveland Clinic.org


Adam Brown
Adam Brown
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