Why Job Training Matters for Students With Autism

Edweek, February 19, 2013

When my severely autistic son was high school age, the local public school system offered him a placement at the high school. I remember feeling the swell of hope in my throat as I met with the administrators. Nat … at the high school, one of the best in the country! Up until then, Nat had attended private autism programs most of his school career because there were no district-based programs for him. Born in 1989, Nat was at the beginning of the huge autism wave that was to come. His childhood had been very lonely, with few options. I had been swallowing down dreams of inclusion for my firstborn for so many years.

I went to that team meeting expecting it to be pro forma: Of course I wanted this for Nat. But as the meeting progressed, my heart sank. This was not a placement I could accept for my son, who was enrolled in a year-round program at his private school and was just beginning vocational training—training that was hands-on, in the community, real-life, working with a job coach. The high school program, on the other hand, had no vocational program to show me. “It is individualized,” they explained to me. But how could I sign on to something so ill-defined when certainty, prediction, and preparedness are a lifeline for so many autistic students, including my son? The school system ended up sending Nat back to his private school for five more years, to the tune of around $80,000 a year in public school dollars.

As a former school committee member, I know that the lack of adequate vocational training is not uncommon in our country’s high schools. So what happens to the kids not bound for four-year colleges? Especially the students with severe special needs, who perhaps more than anyone need to learn skills for a demanding, intolerant world—a world in which social programs and supports are being cut to the bone. The number of opportunities for guys like Nat is little to none. In my state, as well as many others, if someone like Nat is going to work in the world, he will have to qualify for Medicaid waiver money through the state department of developmental services so that he can obtain a job coach. And then he’ll have to actually land a job.

Now, I’m one of those mothers—you know the kind—so Nat actually does have a job, three days a week, at a local supermarket. And we are thrilled. But this is because his private autism school had a serious vocational-training program. Most of Nat’s peers, with challenges similar to his, are not as fortunate. They languish in day habilitations (DayHabs); they are lucky if they can do volunteer Meals on Wheels work a few times a week, if their DayHab is savvy enough to organize such a thing. Mostly, though, they take walks, go to the mall and the gym, wipe off tables at their DayHabs—and they color.

My question is this: Is it really so complicated to job-train people on the autism spectrum or with an intellectual disability? My answer: Not if you have the right attitude and a carefully planned program.

The answer may be right down the block, at a community college. When I’m not being Nat’s mom, I work for the Community College Consortium on Autism and Intellectual Disabilities, or CCCAID, a nationwide group of community colleges that offer job and career training specifically targeted to people with autism and intellectual disabilities. CCCAID has partnered with the food-services company Thompson Hospitality to create a national certification program that will provide a bona fide path to jobs in the hospitality industry to students high school age and older with autism or intellectual disabilities. The hope is to offer the certification starting this fall, and CCCAID expects to add other corporate partners down the line.

With these programs, community colleges throughout the country will not only be able to offer job training, but also to train students with disabilities for independent living. The students will acquire skills and earn certificates that have been vetted by hospitality-industry employers themselves. They will graduate from the program able to do exactly what Thompson, a $350 million corporationRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, requires its employees to do. And many will come away with independent-living skills that will enable them to be less dependent on public aid.

Through such opportunities, school administrators will gain confidence that their students with significant disabilities are getting the training they need to survive. And, employers will be able to hire community college students with full confidence in their training. Forget doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; the hospitality industry will want to hire guys like Nat, who have come through the certification process. No guesswork involved. Employers get trained workers specific to the industry, and employees with disabilities get a job for which they were trained.

Employers will hire these community college graduates because of their skill set; it will not be an act of charity. And for the mother in me, that is the best news of all, because it signifies a real sociological shift—one in which a young man like Nat is a sought-after employee, not someone completely dependent on the government. Partnerships and programs like the one with Thompson Hospitality mean that people previously marginalized for their disabilities will now have a chance to participate in the job force, because of their abilities.

The swell of students on the autism spectrum is flooding K-12 schools and is likely to move on to community college campuses next. I hope that more high schools and community colleges can work together to provide practical, targeted job-training programs so that these students are not set up to fail, but to succeed. And best of all, for guys like Nat, the prospect of employment and some measure of independence no longer has to remain a mother’s wish.