Untapped Potential: Autistic Adults

WBUR Cognoscenti, October 10, 2014

You’d never expect someone like my son to have a job in this economy, much less a solid employment record of eight years. But Nat, who has severe autism, has been employed since he was 16. He started by making pizza boxes for a pizza franchise. He moved up to delivering their coupons before moving on to stocking shelves at CVS. In his current job, he collects shopping carts, baskets and recycling at a local supermarket. This past year, he was made Employee of the Year.

Nat is one of the lucky ones. He makes enough money to contribute to his transportation to and from work and to help pay for his job coach. But most autistic adults do not have jobs. In fact, only an estimated 19 percent of people with autism had any kind of employment at all, according to a 2008 study from the University of Miami/NOVA Southeastern University.

Seventy percent of the one in 88 Americans living with autism are 18-years-old or younger. What are the chances that these children, aging out of the public school system in just a few years, are going to be employed?

As it is, the majority of autistic adults go to Day Rehabilitation Centers, or “day habs,” funded by Medicaid, which does not allow employment or job training as a benefit. Good day habs arrange volunteer opportunities, such as helping out with Meals on Wheels and in food pantries. But too many autistic adults in day habs across the country spend their days getting “therapy” — sitting on physio balls, coloring or playing on the computer. With day habs as their only best option, it is little wonder that between 2003 and 2008, there was a 300 percent increase in the number of autistic people seeking vocational rehabilitation services, according to the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

But there may be cause for hope. In September, the White House announced a 450 million dollar grant to be awarded to 270 community colleges nationwide that partner with employers. This is potentially great news for those with autism, because an estimated 81 percent of those on the autism spectrum seek out community colleges for postsecondary education.

If community colleges are given this chance to train students for the workforce, particularly the traditionally unemployed autistic population, there will be that many fewer autistic adults wasting their days — and their potential — in day habs. It will be good for the autistic, and good for the rest of us, too, as public resources currently dedicated to day hab facilities are freed up for other pressing needs, and as unemployment rates drop. More people working means more people spending money, too.

Cleaning up the shopping carts may not be your dream job, but for guys like my Nat, walking around in the fresh air, putting things away, and not having to talk to people is an ideal way to spend his time. He has found his calling in the parking lot of a supermarket. How many of us can say that? It’s all about how we invest in human potential, and how we change our thinking.‚ÄČ As Kate Gladstone, a self-employed autistic friend recently said, “There are no bad jobs, only bad attitudes.”