Transition Needs for Autistic Young Adults

Drew Sansing  |  08/05/2023

It’s disturbing that 85% of autistic adults are unemployed even though 69% of them want to work (National Autistic Society, 2016). This adds to the financial burden that both their families and society must bear. One of the most pressing concerns of parents of autistic children is whether they will be able to be employed, become financially self-reliant and live independently. Accordingly, it’s important to assess what young adults need to help them successfully enter the workplace.

A study was published in the Journal of Business and Management to identify the needs of autistic young adults as they transition from the end of school to the start of their careers. A survey was conducted of 200 individuals–18 were autistic young adults and the remaining 182 were caregivers of autistic young adults. The responses of the autistic young adults were not considered due to the small sample size. In addition to the survey, the study also utilized a focus group of 35 individuals who were caregivers.

The study examined 4 areas that impact the ability of a young adult to transition successfully into the workplace: career aspirations, preparation for work, career experiences, and transition barriers that interrupt the career development process.


Career Aspirations: The survey found that as much as 40% of the young adults had no interest in a specific job or career. For young adults who did have career goals, many of these (65%) were not realistic ones. Most caregivers (72%) reported that their young adults lacked an understanding about the education and training required to pursue a career. The focus group supported these findings and explained that their young adults were not given the ability to explore different jobs or the opportunity to obtain on-the-job training. These caregivers felt that their young adults learned best by learning the skills in the environment in which they would actually be used.

Preparation for Work: Among the young adults that were the subject of the survey, the majority were enrolled in community college. Focus group participants indicated that vocational programs were costly and that community college was a more affordable option.  Caregivers further noted the lack of sufficient support provided for their young adults to succeed within the community college setting unless there was a program geared specifically toward individuals with disabilities. In terms of searching for a job, the majority of survey respondents found their jobs through a support agency such as the Department of Rehabilitation or a regional center. Only 23% found their jobs through networking. Over half of the unemployed young adults had not looked for a job in the previous 6 months. Caregivers in the survey reported that lack of interviewing skills was a serious hurdle for their young adults. Focus group members reported that their young adults gave up after several rejections.

Career Experiences: Among the young adults that were the subject of the survey, 36% had worked at some point, with 89% of those holding at least 1 to 3 jobs and 75% having worked more than a year. However, only 22% of the participants were working for pay, 43% were working part-time but would like to work more, and 65% were not receiving any benefits such as sick pay, holidays or retirement benefits. Survey respondents felt that the most challenging issue that autistic young adults face is being able to secure employment that allows for financial independence. The second most pressing need was reported to be finding workplaces supportive of those with disabilities. For example, only half reported receiving accommodations from their employer due to their disability. Focus group participants also expressed concern that support programs and related job opportunities weren’t matched well to their young adult’s strengths and weaknesses.

Transition Barriers: Autistic young adults face several barriers to a successful transition to the workplace. Firstly, as much as 82% of survey respondents had co-occuring mental health disorders or conditions such as anxiety and depression. These issues make it difficult for them to face rejection and they often feel overwhelmed with the transition. The steep reduction in services students receive after high school is another barrier to career success. For example, the survey data showed that students received only half the mental health services after high school graduation compared to before. Speech therapy services declined by 83%. Focus group participants also noted that the amount of supervision over young adults falls drastically after high school which leads to fears that autistic employees may not be safe in the workplace or community on the way to work. Parents also expressed concern over the lack of coordination and communication among agencies and stakeholders, which doesn’t lead to the best employment outcomes.

Based on the survey and focus group results, the study authors made the following recommendations in each of the areas affecting success in transitioning to the workplace.
Career Aspirations: The authors recommended that autistic kids be guided earlier in life to develop career aspirations by creating a curriculum outlining possible career options for youth with disabilities and having discussions with them about their career pathways. They also suggested partnering with employers to develop hands-on internships and job training programs for this population.

Preparation for Work: The study suggests that preparation for work should be occurring over many years and across all settings (e.g. schools, colleges, communities and businesses). Preparation should be focused on teaching specific job skills, training on life skills neededfor work, and educating young adults about how to find a job. Training opportunities should include involvement from the community and volunteers to generalize the work skills.Lastly, these young adults will need to be specifically taught about how to apply for jobs and improve their interviewing skills.

Career Experiences: The authors recommended that evidenced-based practices be developed and utilized to assess young adults and match them to available jobs based on their interests. They also suggested that companies should be educated on the benefits of hiring neurodivergent adults such as loyalty, dependability, work completion, unusual technical abilities, reputational and financial benefits. In addition, programs that provide rewards for employers that employ people with disabilities are needed. All stakeholders in a community should collaborate to implement employment programs that benefit the employer, the autistic young adult, and the community.

Transition Barriers: The study’s authors suggested that more effective mental health options need to be developed to assist autistic young adults in making the transition to the workplace. Furthermore, improved communication and collaboration across settings such as school, workplaces, and the community need to be put in place. Specifically, evidence-based interventions need to be developed to foster interagency collaboration. Furthermore, the study concluded that a formalized model of collaboration needs to be implemented to ensure the effectiveness of legislation and policies across the workplace and community.

In conclusion, taking steps such as early career planning, providing job skills training, educating employers,and collaborating across settings will help ease the transition to the workplace for our autistic young adults and ensure that they can succeed and thrive in their careers.

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