ll of us remember our first job. Whether it was helping out with the family business, serving sweet treats at the local frozen yogurt shop, mowing lawns or working at a summer camp, it was an experience that, for better or for worse, you’ll always remember.
While first jobs rarely launch your career, they are an important step to establishing yourself in the workplace. They are an opportunity to practice working as part of a team, taking responsibility, conducting oneself professionally and interacting with customers. All teens should have access to these valuable experiences.
For parents of teens with autism, the job search can be a daunting idea. Significant gaps in education, awareness and inclusion continue to persist in the workplace regarding individuals with autism. This has resulted in a high unemployment rate for those individuals. According to Autism Speaks, nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.
Here are a few tips as you consider job opportunities for your teen, help them navigate the interview process and equip them to succeed once they’ve landed the job:
Set clear expectations for the job-hunt process
It’s important to have mutual guidelines and parameters you and your teen can agree on upfront before diving into the job search. For example, how many hours is your teen willing and able to work, given other commitments?
Will they need help with transportation? What kind of environment will be most conducive to success? Consider lighting, noise level, the potential for crowds, etc. that could be sensory triggers. This will help focus your search and ensure that you invest time in finding a job that’s going to be a true fit for your teen’s needs and your family’s needs.
Consider their strengths — and interests
When people picture individuals with autism in the workplace, they may picture jobs that are routine-based and entry-level. While jobs like this may be an excellent fit for some individuals with autism — especially in the summer when the learning curve can be steep and fast — individuals with autism are a diverse group.
Like all teens looking for a job, individuals with autism have a wide range of strengths that can be valuable in a variety of settings, whether that’s an excellent memory, attention to detail, analytical abilities or high-level math skills. It’s important to emphasize and encourage these strengths in your teen and explore opportunities for them to leverage and build on those skills.
At the same time, it’s important to encourage your teen to think about their interests and passions. Some teens with autism may find themselves limited by the box in which society has placed them. But as with any young adult, taking a job that they are excited about can be more fulfilling, can encourage creativity and can inspire them to dream big and take
ownership of their future.
Play out several mock interview scenarios
In anticipation of the unpredictable nature of interviews, run a few different scenarios with a mix of questions so that you can talk through potential responses with your teen and prepare them for the uncertainty. This allows them the opportunity to work through those challenges in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable and with someone they know and trust. It can even be helpful to ask another friend or family member to conduct one of the mock scenarios so that they can practice with different interview styles and generalize their skills.
Provide a toolkit for self-advocacy
As your teen explores job opportunities, it’s important to be both realistic and supportive. We know all too well the harsh realities of this world and how cruel people can be. There’s a possibility your teen will face disrespect, discrimination, and rejection along the way. Consider how you can equip your teen to face those circumstances when they arise, whether it’s during the hiring process or once they’ve landed the job. This can include educating them about the types of interview questions that employers legally should or shouldn’t be asking as well as sharing ideas for how they can message their strengths and skills.
Look for community education opportunities
See the process as an opportunity to advocate for your son or daughter while you educate your community in the process. Take time throughout the year to reach out to a few businesses in your community to see if they would be interested in inclusion training or a workshop. This can be a unique way to raise awareness and create more opportunities not only for your teen, but also for other individuals with autism.
Remember that while individuals with autism certainly face a unique set of challenges, rejection is a universal feeling. You can remind your teen that they are not alone by sharing stories of individuals with all different types of backgrounds who faced rejection before they found success.
As parents, though we want to protect our kids from facing hurt and rejection, we need to give them the opportunity to explore their independence. And as a community, it’s important that we continue to advocate for inclusive hiring practices and workplace policies for our children and future generations.
Dana Reinhardt is the education director of HASA, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides health, speech-language, education, language access and inclusion programs to people of all ages, and oversees Gateway School, a nonpublic school for children with autism and other communication-related disorders. She can be reached at [email protected]