Autism Through the Lifecycle

A response to: “Graduation to the Couch,” an announcement from

If a person is diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at a young age, “graduation to the couch” may be an avoidable problem.

When a neurotypical graduates from high school, it is reasonable to expect that they will be able to find employment. This is true because a neurotypical can learn most basic job skills in a relatively short amount of time. Unfortunately, even for the highest functioning people on the autism spectrum, vocational training can take longer than many employers are willing to wait. The result is that many jobs “don’t work out” for people on the spectrum.

To make the transition to employment easier, we advocate that parents of children on the autism spectrum identify a career path for their children as early as eight years old, and that job specific training be started by the age of ten. If the child functions well enough to potentially be employed in the future, is the parents’ task to select a profession for their child based on the child’s special interests, as well as on knowledge of what jobs are valued in the marketplace. Famously, as a young girl Temple Grandin enjoyed drawing horses; when her mother saw this, she encouraged Temple to also draw the barns that the horses lived in. Grandin has gone on to become one of the foremost livestock lot designers in the world.

If children begin their vocational training by the age of eight or ten, they can have a decade of work-related experience by the time they graduate from high school. This experience will give them a clear idea of what jobs they are qualified to apply for when they enter the workforce. The goal is for young people to build a resume of education, training, and recommendations that they can use by the time that government programs end when they reach twenty-one. As an example, even very young children can start developing practical computer skills. These skills will be useful for almost every line of work, from data entry to computer programming, depending on the individual’s level of functioning.

Social skills can be even more challenging than job skills for many people on the autism spectrum. When an employer hires a new worker, they typically only screen for that person’s ability to do the job and assume that their new hire has the social skills to function effectively with the other workers. The ability to function socially is not a given for many people on the autism spectrum. In the words of one Human Resources professional, “Employees are hired for skills and fired for personality.”

Autism causes a social and developmental delay that can equal about one third or more of the person’s age. This one-third developmental delay can be used as a guide for the jobs a person on the spectrum may be able to handle. At twenty-one, a person on the spectrum may have a developmental delay that means that they are socially only fourteen. Care must be taken to avoid creating a history of failure by placing autistic workers in positions in which they may fail when they are twenty-one but would succeed in when they are thirty and are developmentally ready.

To overcome their lack of social skills, a high functioning autistic person’s job skills must exceed those of a comparably trained neurotypical, whose social abilities allow them to fit easily into the workplace. For lower functioning people on the autism spectrum, work must be selected where social interaction is not important to the job.

In parallel with early vocational and social training, early financial planning is also essential for both the young person on the spectrum and their parents. Due to the many problems that autism causes, a person on the spectrum may earn less than one half of what a neurotypical worker will in their lifetime in any given field. If possible, at the time of diagnosis, a trust fund should be set up for the child to help offset this deficit in lifetime earnings. Equally as important, parents of people on the spectrum need to make a lifetime financial plan for themselves. This plan needs to account for the resources that will be necessary after the educational services end, and also needs to provide support for when the parents are not able to care for their children themselves. In cases where parents are not able to save money for their children, it becomes especially important that the person on the spectrum receive as much vocational training as possible, to help protect against these predictable shortfalls.

Finally, if young people on the spectrum are expected to successfully transition to adulthood, they will need specific life skills training. This training must provide instruction in the basic skills that they will need, including food shopping, cooking, laundry, money management, transportation skills, and the other activities involved in living outside of their parents’ home. Even if the person on the spectrum does not function well enough to be employed, life skills training is essential, especially as they get older. We also advocate for training in nutrition and physical exercise, two topics that are commonly neglected for people on the spectrum.

We feel that it is a tragic mistake for both people on the spectrum and their families to put all of their resources into solving the behavioral effects of autism to the exclusion of providing vocational training, financial planning, and life skills instruction. Having been members of many autism groups, we see that the behavioral differences that autism causes tend to resolve themselves as the person matures. However, without providing essential career, financial, and life skills training from an early age, there are few options for a person on the spectrum other than “graduation to the couch.”

We applaud the work done by and we feel that their work can be made more effective if caregivers carefully prepare people on the spectrum with marketable skills by the time they reach the age of twenty-one.

These ideas are covered in more detail in our upcoming book, Autism Through the Lifecycle.

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Thanks, Caitlin and Phil

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