Early Employment-Related Experiences of Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Early Employment-Related Experiences of Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum- C. Anderson & C. Butt

Why study this topic?

Many young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed or underemployed. We do not currently have a good understanding of what factors relate to good vs. poor employment outcomes for those with ASD. This study explored early employment-related experiences of young adults with ASD and identified challenges and supports of employment success.

What did the researcher do?

Thirty-five parents were interviewed about their young adult child with ASD’s employment-related experiences. The young adults had varying strengths, challenges, and co-occurring conditions. Of the 35 young adults with ASD, 40% also had intellectual disability.Twelve of the young adults with ASD agreed to participate in a separate interview as well. The researchers asked the parents and the subset of twelve young adults with ASD open-ended questions about their employment-related experiences. 

What was the outcome?

Three themes were identified from the interviews with parents and with young adults with ASD: Life Aspirations, Support and Opportunity, and Work Dilemmas. The Life Aspirations theme centered on beliefs in a young adult’s potential and advantages of work, including daily engagement, the importance of social interaction and a place to belong outside of the family home, financial benefits, and the independence and self-esteem associated with these. In the Support and Opportunity theme, families highlighted having to work hard to create opportunities and finding that although volunteering opportunities could be found after a great deal of effort, paid employment was not easy to obtain. Job placement services and job coaches were also often not able to help with finding the right fit or accessing opportunities. Relating to the theme of Workplace Dilemmas, barriers to success once in a position included ASD symptom interference, for both social communication weaknesses and repetitive and rigid behavior, and how systems in place at locations hosting the position could be too rigid. When supports were in place, they were often inconsistent or insufficient to support an individual’s success.

What are the strengths and limitations of the study?

Strengths: A total of 47 participants (35 parents and 12 young adults with ASD) were interviewed, spanning a range of ability. The participation of the 12 young adults with ASD gave some insight into successes and challenges experienced by individuals with ASD in their own words.

Limitations: The sample was restricted to mostly mothers reporting on their child, with the large majority of the sample reporting a family income level of greater than or equal to $100,000. This means that it is possible that fathers and families in other income circumstances might have different experiences not captured by this study’s findings. Diagnoses were all self-reported and this limits the ability to understand the range and functional level of individuals that could be more clear had the researchers reviewed clinical records or had participants undergo direct assessment to confirm diagnosis. Finally, there was a much smaller representation of perspectives from individuals with ASD relative to their parents (i.e., 12 vs. 35 interviewed). As such, the findings from this study are better described as parents’ perceptions of employment-related difficulties with additional confirmatory information from some individuals with ASD.

What does this mean?

Young adults with ASD face significant challenges gaining and maintaining pre-employment and employment opportunities. Understanding these issues may help employers, agencies, families, and transition programs more effectively support young adults with ASD in attaining this valuable life experience. More attention needs to be paid to specialized supports for ASD vocational placement and on-the-job training and mentoring to support a high quality of life.