In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the employment of adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Many posts have discussed programs to provide them with training and experience.
The Uniquely Abled Project (UAP) provides post-high school vocational opportunities to young adults with ASD, matching the unique skills of autistic individuals to high-demand career jobs, in a way that is scalable and free to parents. Founder Ivan Rosenberg, a management consultant and parent of two children on the spectrum, saw himself as a “business person dealing with a social problem” – confronting two major challenges he believed could become solutions for each other: (1) the soaring unemployment rate for millions of Americans with disabilities and (2) the fact that many businesses lack access to a skilled workforce (Rosenberg 2020).
Rosenberg identified several barriers related to the unemployment problem:
- Use of the word “disabled”
- Lack of understanding among employers and job developers regarding the potential of people with autism
- Insufficient affordable, vocational education programs for people with ASD
- Scarce efforts to match unique abilities to the specific needs of jobs (Rosenberg 2020)
UAP works within existing education and employment systems to create a structure of collaboration between different stakeholders – including autistic employees, educators at community colleges, job developers at state agencies, autism specialists, and private employers – under the banner of a single program. Its 16-week academy comprehensively trains, places, and provides ongoing support to individuals with ASD by (1) matching diagnoses to jobs, (2) offering vocational and soft skills training through community colleges, (3) teaching instructors how to train autistic students, (4) educating job developers to find specific manufacturing jobs students are being trained for, (5) coaching employers on how to work with autistic employees, and (6) providing post-hire support to academy students (Rosenberg 2020).
UAP provides consulting and facilitates collaboration to get programs started in different locales. The academy’s first major job match has been between people with high-functioning autism, who are often good at repetitive work with clear instructions, and entry-level computerized machine operator jobs in the manufacturing industry. To date, it has been quite successful, with an estimated 69 machine operator job placements out of 70 graduates since August 2016 (Rosenberg 2020). Because UAP works within the existing community college and employment agency systems, the cost of the program is low – about $3,000–5,000 per student, which is subsidized by regional centers, state agencies, and banks (Rosenberg 2020). UAP plans to expand its approach and business model to assist more challenged autistic individuals while diversifying to other industries.
Several lessons can be learned from UAP’s:
- Comprehensive, collaborative training model within existing systems
- Identification of high-demand jobs that match with unique abilities of ASD individuals
- Desire to empower abilities of people with ASD within a culture of high expectations
- High placement rate, low cost, and potential for scalability
Relative success stories can often be attributed to resource access and money; however, innovative ideas, cross-sector collaboration, effective employer outreach, and a culture of high expectations also play a significant role. Although the autistic young adults participating in these two programs are predominantly “high-functioning” on the spectrum, several lessons and themes regarding the broader transition services system can be distilled. It is critical to generalize best practices from successful organizations to the larger autistic population – otherwise, only a select few will benefit.