Disclaimer: Any advice or suggestions that I write here CANNOT be considered therapy or professional consultation, due to counseling ethics standards. It is not really practical or possible to do counseling with someone I have never met. What I hope to offer IS my personal experience as a person with ASD, ADHD, and Anxiety Disorder NOS, combined with experience as a parent of special needs children, plus the things I have learned as a professional counselor. Take any advice that fits, leave aside what doesn't fits.
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1. Match up natural strengths and skills with the corresponding job descriptions. There are many examples of ASD folks who are quite successful in their professions, including many musicians, artists, writers and, of course, computer scientists. As a parent, though it may be hard, allow your child to explore the subject areas that naturally fascinate them. (Let them enjoy their obsessions.) Everyone wants to feel successful, so pursuing jobs that correspond with those interests/obsessions is a good place to start in the career search process.
Besides seeking out careers that match up well with your child's interests, it is also important to identify job-related skills that your child does easily or naturally. Note that interests and skills are not necessarily the same things. At times natural skills may be helpful in some work settings but counterproductive in others. Some ASD children have ADHD-like symptoms (or have co-occurring ASD and ADHD), including impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattentiveness. Jobs which require a great deal of attention to safety, details, or multiple steps to accomplish a task may not be good fits for these ADHD-like traits. However, that same child can thrive in a work setting that involves attention to visual stimuli, predictable, simple tasks which can be completed with an ability to stay present focused. An ASD child with anxiety symptoms may be great at proceeding cautiously with complex tasks, planning ahead, organizing and rechecking things to ensure accurate results. Just don't put that child in a chaotic or loud setting with lots of last minute decision making and the need for flexibility when plans change.
Other skills which many ASD children have that could be useful in the working world include:
- Memorization Skills-Many ASD folks have almost instant recall when it comes to numbers, facts, names or any other type of information that they either hear or read.
- Comfort with Monotonous or Repetitive Actions and/or Movements-Someone with ASD can perform as well as, or better than their normal peers, even in highly technical fields, such as cardiology or computer science, because they can repeat their actions precisely and accurately every time. This also lends itself to warehouse jobs, assembly line jobs, or other jobs involving repetition and routine.
- Tendency to Prefer Activities with Physical Component-In general, ASD folks would benefit from job fields that involve physical activity, since it incorporates sensory input that is non-verbal and non-social. If it helps in the classroom, it will help in the working world.
As a parent, your goal is to teach your child organizing and time management skills, as well as essential social skills, such as asking for help and accepting criticism in socially-appropriate ways. This is just as essential at work as it is in school and home. Remember that the significant deficits in organizational skills, working memory, communication and social skills may make professional training and career paths in some fields impossible. A 5-year old who can build a scale model of the Eiffel Tower with Lego bricks has the essential skill (as well as passion for the subject matter) to be an engineer. However, social communication, emotional regulation, the need for specific rituals and routines (at home or at work), as well as sensory issues, all may be too powerful for your little builder to overcome in order to accomplish the other requirements of the job.
One author with ASD explained his ability to succeed at work by describing his behavior and mindset at work as a "role" that he plays ("work guy.") Remember that when your child is trying to juggle multiple "roles" they may not be able to apply these skills on their own. The lack of generalizing skills is a subtle but very significant problem. Compartmentalizing is a coping strategy that simplifies things for ASD folks. The danger is that it lends itself to major consequences in their work, social life and home life. What happens when "work guy" is ready to clock out for the day and is informed suddenly that everyone will have to stay late to complete an important project? Excuses about family emergencies and sudden illnesses will only last so long. Your child's inability to ask for help and support could result in major consequences at work. Teaching your child life skills while he is young will help him advocate for himself with employers about his needs and can make or break his or her success in the work world.
3. Plan ahead and put supports in place.
Once you have completed the first two steps above, identifying a career field or two that might be good fits for your ASD child entering the work force, fill in the gaps. Small gaps, such as difficulty managing time well, can be addressed through a simple alarm on a phone or watch as a reminder to not miss a required lunch break or team meeting. The larger issues (social, new, or changing job duties, new supervisor, etc.) can be addressed through a job coach. An individual with a valid ASD diagnosis may qualify for Vocational Rehabilitation Services, including job coaching and similar supports. The bottom line is that the coach can't do the job for the employee. The ASD person needs to meet 90-95% or the job's basic requirements without help in order for these kinds of supports to be effective. On the flip side, if the difference between keeping a position or not is just a question of clocking out too late for lunch, the key is to find a way to meet that need and allow the ASD person to focus on the parts of the job that are not a struggle.
4. Set realistic and attainable career goals.
The reason for employment is to be able to provide for one's self and/or one's family. One thing that ASD folks struggle with is work/life balance. While it is fun to imagine your 6-year old Star Wars fan as a movie producer when he grows up, it is important to aim for something more realistic. On the other hand, your ASD child who brings home "C" or "D" grades in math may not be doomed to live the rest of his life in a converted apartment in your attic. If you can teach your ASD child the role and purpose of employment in society, then it will be easier for the two of you to set a course towards the working world that is more attainable, more likely to be successful, and enables a work/life balance that is more well rounded. Let me illustrate with an example from my life.
When I was 18 years old, I would have told you that I wanted to work for Nike designing shoes and apparel, and/or writing for the Simpsons and/or Saturday Night Live. This was not realistic or in line with my actual abilities, despite my enthusiasm for TV comedy and athletic shoes. As you might already know, I ended up pursuing psychology, then school psychology, and finally mental health counseling in college and then graduate school. This progression happened as I developed an understanding of my strengths and weaknesses in the mental health/psychology world, sometimes after finding out the weaknesses the hard way. However, despite learning the technical and professional skills of my chosen profession, I learned that I was still lacking in terms of life skills-time management, organizing my schedule and prioritizing correctly. I didn't know how to ask for help and I would have been too embarrassed to ask for it. I developed bad habits, and eventually, agreed to corrective action plans and involuntary resignation at several jobs. This happened because I did not acknowledge my weaknesses and I was struggling to find balance in my work/personal life. No supports were in place. As things became more complicated and complex in my personal life, stresses at work, which were almost bearable when I was single and had fewer responsibilities, became completely overwhelming, and the stress carried over into other aspects of my life.
Then two important things happened. I was diagnosed with ASD, ADHD and an Anxiety Disorder, after discovering that both of our biological children had autism, one with ADHD and the other with anxieties. Then I lost another job, and applied to a job at Walmart for which I had no real experience or any sense of confidence about. While it's something of a cruel joke that I graduated with a Master's degree, and a professional counseling license, just so I could end up working in the backroom at Walmart, I can safely say that it is the most satisfying job I have had with the least amount of job-related stress to bring home. More importantly, it satisfies the requirement of providing income for my family, while also allowing enough flexibility to spend time doing things that are far more rewarding to me like writing on this blog, helping with learning time materials, and spending quality time with my wife and kids. If what we want most for our children with autism is for them to function in the world adequately while living the life they want to live, on their terms, then I think the backroom at Walmart might be the best-case scenario for me at this stage of life. As in everything else, balance is the key.
My story is not meant to be the best model for everyone, it might not even work for anyone else. It is not meant to suggest that an autistic person can't aspire to anything higher than a Walmart job. I am suggesting that your ASD child has the greatest chance of starting and maintaining a career if the four steps I outlined above are considered, from the grade school years right up through adulthood. Employment outside the home isn't for everyone, but for some, it can add a rich layer of experience and opportunity to the life and an individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder. A person with ASD has the right and privilege of pursuing happiness the same way everyone else does, and a fulfilling career can be an important part of that journey.
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