Job Training for Adolescents with Autism

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

As children with autism enter their teenage years, educational programming should begin to focus on adult independent living skills, including vocational and employment skills. Regulations require that a child’s parents and a team of professionals begin to plan for the transition to adulthood when the child turns 14, and begin to implement that plan when the child turns 16.

Much of the necessary planning can be incorporated into the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), which should be updated annually. This sets the stage for discussion, negotiation, and agreement between the parents, student, and school district.

What are the important components of a vocational and employment training program?

First, assessment of the student’s skills and preferences is required. A vocational training program allows a student to explore new experiences and build on his or her unique preferences.

The program should provide a range of experiences for students that includes simulated and real job tasks. These can take place on-site at the school as well as in the community at typical employment locations. Real hands-on learning is usually most effective for students with autism. Small groups of students can work together at some jobs; at other jobs, the student is individually placed. Not all jobs need workers during regular school hours, so there should be opportunities for students to work at jobs during evening and weekend hours.

Students should be exposed to a variety of jobs that require different skills. Some schools offer “tracks” or “career paths” that students can try. Examples include working in retail locations, filing and clerical tasks, data entry, janitorial activities, assembly, landscaping, and food services. The program should ensure that students learn all the skills required by each of the “tracks” in order to qualify for post-school employment.

Mastering the specific tasks of a job is only part of what a student needs to be successful at that job. He or she must also learn to handle general work skills. These include how to take a break, follow timecard and attendance procedures, and begin and end a work day. There are also a variety of social skills that students must learn including following instructions from a supervisor, asking for assistance, accepting criticism, engaging in simple conversation, dressing appropriately for the work site, and having proper personal hygiene.

All of these skills must be taught using effective procedures such as those based on the principles of applied behavior analysis. This includes teaching in small steps, using positive rewards and reinforcers, providing assistance and prompts, fading prompts, planning for the maintenance of skills once learned and for their generalization to real life situations and settings, and the regular collection of accurate data on the student’s performance.

For many students, using self-management techniques helps them become more independent. A student self-manages when he or she participates in recording data (such as using a checklist, timer, or counter), handling prompts (such as audiotapes, picture cues, or written instructions), and using rewards, such as appropriately asking for feedback from a supervisor.

Staff members who work with the students need to be experienced in vocational training and how to use effective teaching techniques. Trained employment specialists and job coaches play a critical role in overseeing and implementing vocational programming. It is vitally important that the staff are skilled at determining good matches for the student’s training experiences, and that they provide an appropriate amount of on-site support.

Finally, the program should regularly evaluate the effects of its training activities. This should include a review of the number of jobs each student has experienced, his or her mastery of job-specific and general work place skills and behaviors, and the satisfaction of students, parents, and community employment training sites.

A training program that begins in adolescence can help make employment much more likely for the student when he or she “ages out” of the educational system. With careful planning and skilled instruction, many young adults with autism can enjoy the benefits of successful employment: financial income, access to benefits, social opportunities, increased self-esteem, and a normalized lifestyle.

By Alan Harchik, Ph.D., BCBA

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis and evidence-based interventions, serving autistic individuals and individuals with other developmental disabilities, brain injury, neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded nearly 70 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit