Preparing Adults with Autism for Employment Success

April 17, 2019

In recent years, researchers examining employment outcomes have found that when young adults with autism have opportunities to participate in programs that both adequately prepare and support them as they enter the workforce, they can be successful and valuable employees.

For example, a study conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University showed that almost all high school students with autism who participated in an intensive job skills program gained and maintained meaningful part-time employment after graduation, with 90 percent of the participants acquiring competitive, part-time jobs three months after graduation, and 87 percent of the participants retaining their jobs a year after graduation. In contrast, a control group in the study who did not participate in the program had only 6 percent employed three months after graduation and only 12 percent employed a year later.

Other studies that looked at employment rates among young adults with autism show that there is still a great need for programs that strengthen employability skills and provide opportunities for young adults to practice them.

According to a report by the Life Course Outcomes Research Program (A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University), young adults with autism have the poorest employment outcomes among young adults with disabilities:

Compared to their peers with other types of disabilities, young adults with autism had the lowest rate of employment. While 58% of those on the autism spectrum ever worked during their early 20s, over 90% of young adults with emotional disturbance, speech impairment, or learning disability ever worked, as well as 74% of young adults with intellectual disability.

Young adults on the autism spectrum who worked after high school held an average of about three jobs total during their early 20s. Nearly 80% worked part-time and earned an average of $9.11 per hour. Full-time workers earned an average of $8.08 per hour.1

Improving the likelihood that a young adult with autism will be successfully employed and increase their independence requires that they have structured opportunities to explore options and practice valuable workplace skills.

Provide Opportunities Before a Student Graduates

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) recognizes that students with disabilities require supports to prepare for life after school. Therefore, the Act includes requirements for school districts to develop specific written transition plans and provide services that help students transition from educational services into adult life.

In order to be effective, the transition Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should have specific, meaningful objectives and activities.

  • The IEP should outline the specific steps needed for a student to reach their goal. For example, if the goal is for the student to participate in a supported employment program upon graduation, it is not enough to broadly state the goal. The goal should be written in a way that it answers specific questions such as: what specific knowledge or skills must they acquire or demonstrate for them to successfully participate? Who will provide the instruction and how often will it take place? How long is the student expected to take to acquire those skills?
  • Determine if the goals are realistic and relevant, and if they reflect the student’s interests and current abilities. Questions to ask: will reaching the goal increase the likelihood that they will be able to function in their future work environment? Are the goals realistic given the student’s current level of functioning across academic, functional, behavior and social skills? What instruction or supports would the student need?
  • Take advantage of available services as early as possible. Starting at age 14, students can participate in Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) through the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS). Pre-ETS is available to any student age 14-22 participating in an educational program, including home schooling. They do not have to be found eligible for DVRS. Services fall under the following five categories:
      1. Job exploration counseling
      2. Work-based learning experiences, which may include in-school, or community-based opportunities
      3. Counseling on opportunities for enrollment in comprehensive transition or postsecondary educational programs
      4. Workplace readiness training to develop social skills and independent living
      5. Instruction in self-advocacy, including peer mentoring
  • Provide thorough, age-appropriate vocational assessments conducted by qualified professionals. When selecting assessments consider the nature and/or severity of the student’s disability and choose those that are designed to help students identify their current strengths and interests, as well as their present and future goals. Assessments can help them identify any obstacles they would need to address to achieve their goals (for example, do they know what kind of career they want to pursue, and do they have the necessary workplace skills?) Assessments should focus on multiple areas including adaptive behavior, intelligence, individual preferences, career interests, academics and specific skills.
  • Focus on related services. When planning, think about services beyond helping students in the school setting. Identify areas that might present a barrier to future employment. For example, a student who needs help with conversational skills can work toward goals in speech therapy. A student with behavioral challenges will need support services. Other areas to consider are a student’s ability to manage time, learn social skills within the work setting, and any behaviors that would interfere with the person’s employment.
  • Ensure the participation of the student in the planning process as much as possible and help them make informed decisions.

Resources for Individuals, Families and Employers

The following resources are available to help individuals, their families, schools and employers support adults with disabilities in the workforce.

The Drexel University Life Course Outcomes Research Program conducts research on how to improve the lives of people on the autism spectrum, and covers topics including education and employment.

The United States Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP)  is the only non-regulatory federal agency that promotes policies and coordinates with employers and all levels of government to increase workplace success for people with disabilities. According to ODEP, its mission is “to develop and influence policies and practices that increase the number and quality of employment opportunities for people with disabilities.” There are four policy development and technical assistance resources sponsored by ODEP:

New Jersey-Specific Resources

New Jersey Statewide Independent Living Council: Provides links to county Centers for Independent Living (CIL). Services offered by each Center vary, but many offer employment resources.

New Jersey Division of Disability Services (DDS) provides information and referral, and administers NJ WorkAbility, which offers people with disabilities who are working, and whose income would otherwise make them ineligible for Medicaid, the opportunity to receive full Medicaid coverage.

New Jersey Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS): In addition to pre-ETS services, DVRS can assist transitioning young adults. Individuals can self-refer or be referred by an agency such as school. DVRS can provide supportive employment, job coaching, evaluations, college and skills training and other services.

For more information and resources about transition and employment, contact Autism New Jersey’s helpline.


1Roux, A. M., Shattuck, P. T., Rast, J. E., Rava, J. A., & Anderson, K. A. (2015). National autism indicators report: Transition into young adulthood. Philadelphia, PA: Life Course Outcomes Research Program, A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University.