My son will be 16 this summer. As a family, we are headed into some new territory. “Transition” looms.
Or, to borrow a phrase from Marlin of Finding Nemo, “You mean – the swirling vortex of terror?!?“
In actuality, this adolescent stage of special needs parenting is a mix: it is simultaneously more relaxed and more terrifying than the early days. On the one hand, there is a strange relief in acknowledging that I will be teaching my son for the rest of his life. My stress regarding his progress in school and in his therapies—that fretful drive to ensure that he “catch up” to his peers—has been dramatically lessened. We’ve got time. We can proceed at his pace because he will be a true “lifelong learner.”
The difficulty (and the new stress) comes in locating quality, affordable programs and supports to continue his development and education after he leaves school. My son is not on a graduation track and won’t be going to college. He is one of the half-million autistic students who will “age out” of the public school system in the United States in the next ten years. If you watch the Dateline NBC report “On the Brink” tonight, you’ll see that therapeutic options, independent or supported living arrangements, and opportunities for employment are still scarce for autistic adults. The process can be very frustrating for families trying to support their loved ones, and extremely disheartening for the autistic adults themselves.
One of the many aspects of transition to adulthood is finding something fulfilling to occupy your time (something that can also ideally make a contribution to society). Access to employment, regardless of where one falls on the autism spectrum, is critically important. Studies on adults with autism have shown that having meaningful employment, with as much independence on the job as possible, is crucial for continued progress in multiple areas, including communication, social ability, and functional life skills. Really, isn’t this true for all of us?
On April 2, I noted the United Nation’s “Call to Action” which aims to both support autistic adults in finding work and help employers understand the benefits of hiring individuals with autism. Some initiatives for those with technical computer skills – like Microsoft and LiveCode – have been launched recently.
When I started looking around to see what other types of opportunities have been developed, I was very encouraged by the creative ventures I found. From placement services that match existing businesses with local autistic employees to entrepreneurial ventures designed specifically with autistic employees in mind—candy and cookie makers, car washes, artisan crafts, and many types of service-oriented businesses—there are some great ideas out there.
Dreaming about what my son’s future job or activity might be can help solidify our goals for the next few years—what exactly are the skills he might need for a certain type of job? The seemingly insurmountable impediments to future employment that we see now can only be overcome if we know what we’re working toward—both in terms of his own skill-building, and in the creation of a suitable workplace in which he can thrive and make his own unique contribution.
I want to keep these business models that I’ve come across close and accessible as we begin to dream about the possibilities (Pixar speaks again: “We’re formulating another plan! Stay calm!” –Rex, Toy Story). So, I’ve created a Quirky Works! Page that includes links to businesses that hire or train autistic people. I’ll continue to add to the page as I find more. Please take a look!