Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Effective Transition Planning for Learners with ASD Approaching Adulthood


Peter F. Gerhardt is President of the Organization for Autism Research, Arlington, Virginia.

Despite the transition requirements of IDEA and a growing body of research in support of effective transition planning for middle and high school students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) (e.g., Schall, et al., 2006), adults on the spectrum remain without employment in large numbers (e.g., Howlin, 2000) and, even those generally regarded as most capable too often live lives of social isolation, dependence, and few opportunities to improve their quality of life (Howlin, Goode, Hutton, & Rutter, 2004). This outcome can be seen as an indicator of system failure, and evidence that there is a “disconnect” between what research indicates is possible in terms of competent adulthood for learners with ASD (e.g., Smith, Belcher & Hughes, 1995), and the outcomes most commonly realized (Gerhardt & Holmes, 2005).

There is a critical need to revisit the ways in which such learners are prepared for adult life beyond the classroom, in the community, and on the job. Although not exhaustive, some considerations toward that end should include the following:

  • Consider all learners to be “employment-ready.”
  • View first jobs as learning experiences.
  • Promote creativity in job development.
  • Provide co-worker training.
  • Develop active ties with the local business community.

Consider All Employment-Ready

If we are to consider all learners with ASD to be employment-ready, then the concept of “work-readiness” needs to be redefined. Work-readiness is a term generally used to describe a cohort of skills considered pre-requisites for employment success. These might include time on task, low levels of challenging behavior, some degree of social competence, etc. In practice, however, work-readiness as a barometer of employment competence has, instead, excluded far more people with ASD from the workforce than it has enabled to find employment. Given that many of the basic skills necessary to get (and keep) a job are best learned while on the job (hence the phrase “on the job training”) then the generally accepted definition of work-readiness results in a “Catch 22” situation for the majority of learners with ASD. In effect, high work-readiness expectations result in a system where, first, you are considered unemployable because you don’t have the requisite skills and, second, you can’t acquire the requisite skills because the opportunity to do so is denied to you. Redefining work-readiness to acknowledge all persons with ASD as being potentially viable candidates for employment, and providing practical, hands-on employment opportunities, is clearly in order.

View First Jobs as Learning

I know of few typical adults for whom their first job turned out to be their final, or dream, job. Most adults go through a series of jobs – some bad, some good – on their own particular path toward an, ideally, fulfilling career. The question that presents itself, then, is “Wouldn’t this be the same for adults with ASD?”

As noted earlier, first jobs are most important in that they provide the transitioning learner with ASD the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to keep and hold a job. In addition, first jobs provide the opportunity for individual learners to develop a sense of which types of work and working conditions would be best for them, and subsequently, increase their level of community inclusion and status. Even a first job that fails to last longer than a few hours (though certainly not the goal) can be a valuable experience, particularly if we are then able to determine what about the job did not meet the learner’s needs, abilities, interests, preferences, and idiosyncrasies. Was the job too noisy? Were the production demands too high? Was there too much general activity and confusion? Was there not enough for him or her to do? This meeting of individual preferences and job characteristics is at times referred to the “job match” (e.g., Ochocka, Roth, & Lord, 1994) or goodness of fit (e.g., Shalock & Jensen, 1986). A positive job match means that the production and social/communicative demands, and environmental characteristics, of a job are preferred or, in fact, enjoyed by the employee. For many learners with ASD for whom pay may not be a primary motivating factor, the degree of job match can be the critical variable determining employee/employer satisfaction versus a return to unemployment.

Promote Creativity

Today, the economy of the United States is primarily a service economy (as opposed to a production economy) with many of the available jobs requiring some degree of technical, social and organizational (i.e., the ability to multi-task) competence. While certainly challenging, this complexity can work to the advantage of transitioning learners through a process known as job-carving (Nietupski & Hamre-Nietupski, 2000). Job-carving is a process which takes advantage of the complexity of the job market by “carving out” individual tasks from more complex, multi-task jobs. Carved-out tasks are then combined to create a new, economically viable job specifically designed to meet the needs of the transitioning learner, his or her employer, and customers. For a job-carve to work, it is of critical importance that the needs of all noted parties are met, otherwise the economics of the situation will eventually require the termination of the carved job. Good job-carving requires a direct knowledge of a potential employee’s abilities, interests, and limitations; a comprehensive understanding of the employer’s needs; solid observational and analysis skills; and competent negotiating skills.

Support and Train Co-Workers

Despite professional recognition of the diversity of expression associated with ASD, the community at large has generally come to understand the disorder through the character of Raymond Babbit in the movie “Rainman.” As such, absent any direct experience with someone on the spectrum, employers and co-workers will tend to have a fairly limited understanding of ASD in general, and almost no understanding of the potential of someone on the spectrum to be a valued employee and/or co-worker. In most cases employers, supervisors, and co-workers will require some degree of training if both work-based production competence and social inclusion are to be realized. A few potential areas of training include:

  • A brief, jargon-free introduction to ASD and how it impacts the life of their new colleague.
  • Individual likes, dislikes, and preferences as they may relate to the performance of the job.
  • Effective strategies for interacting with their new colleague (e.g., a preference for concrete language).
  • Effective strategies for supporting a socially inclusive workplace.
  • The role and responsibilities of the job coach, if one is provided.
  • How to provide performance feedback to their new colleague.
  • Basic information regarding any idiosyncratic or unusual patterns of behavior that may occur on the job.

Develop Community Ties

Most schools or agencies providing services to transitioning learners with ASD are either government entities or are incorporated as non-profit organizations. As such, they are generally organized and administered differently than a similarly sized, for-profit business in the community. Differences in mission, organizational structure, and finances (to name a few) may result in something of a “culture clash” between the goals of the educational organization (i.e., providing the education necessary to succeed post-graduation) and those of the for-profit business (e.g., promoting an efficient workforce to maximize investors’ profits). In order to better understand and address these potential differences, the development of active ties to the local business community in the form of a Business Advisory Council can be of significant benefit to the school or other non-profit agency. While the primary goal of the Business Advisory Council (BAC) is to increase employment opportunities for individuals with ASD, the secondary goal is to provide information, insight and, if necessary, direct instruction to school staff on how to most effectively work with the local business community. The BAC can promote greater access to employment by:

  • Identifying areas of potential job development and local hiring trends.
  • Providing training on how to more effectively interact with potential employers for developing jobs.
  • Offering training in clearly identifying employer demands and expectations, and soliciting mutually useful feedback.
  • Providing direct access to a pool of potential employers.
  • Assisting in the development of employer-friendly materials.

Developing and maintaining active ties to the local business community, through an involved BAC, should be considered a worthwhile, if not essential, tool toward translating the transition goals of each individual into more readily obtainable transition outcomes.


In the United States, adults with ASD continue to exist outside the employment mainstream in numbers far greater than is appropriate or acceptable. Among the many reasons for this continued underemployment are the disconnect between the potential of adult learners with ASD and the resources of the systems designed to provide programmatic support, the absence of a legislative entitlement to services as an adult, inadequate or inappropriate transition planning, and, to some extent, limited interest in supporting adult learners in general and in particular those with greater cognitive or behavioral challenges. While these challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable. It is both possible and desirable for adults with ASD to be gainfully employed, and to live lives of quality (e.g., Bannerman, Sheldon, Sherman, & Harchik, 1990). The task ahead then is to take this possibility and translate it into a certainty… sometimes one person at a time.


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