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Navigating Services - Vocational Rehabilitation Program

This post was written by Jennifer Kaut M.Ed., BCBA, who is a mother of a teenage son with autism and is currently the State Autism Specialist for The Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS). In addition, Jennifer is the founder and director of Inspire Behavior Therapy located in Austin, Texas.

The public Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) program is a federally mandated program administered by states to support people with disabilities in accessing and maintaining employment. VR uses a linear model of eligibility, assessment and intervention to assist consumers to prepare for, obtain and maintain work. Parts of the traditional system can be quite daunting for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The State of Texas VR is striving to change this through devising more transparent practices to meet the needs of consumers.

For example, a person with ASD might experience anxiety and preservation, which may prevent the person from attending the first appointment. If he/she does show up, facing a new place, a new person and unclear expectations can feel overwhelming. If VR is unable to recognize this anxiety and respond appropriately, the person with ASD may never come back after their first office visit. After an initial appointment the VR counselor could send the consumer for an assessment to assist with planning. Many of these assessments (such as psychological or vocational assessments) are conducted in formal evaluation settings – again with unfamiliar people and places. Under these conditions, evaluators are unlikely to capture a valid snapshot of a person's ability to work. Challenging behaviors and social skill deficits associated with ASD further compound the difficulties in assessment and then the preparation for gaining and maintaining employment. 

The State of Texas VR has discovered several ways to change traditional VR practice so that it better supports individuals with autism and other disabilities where these factors interfere with success. In March of 2011, Assistant Commissioner Jim Hanophy hired a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) to assess and assist in the ways Texas served people with ASD and other developmental disabilities. By January 31, 2012, a statewide team of VR Counselors and Community Rehabilitation Providers (CRP) was formed. This team is trained directly by the State Autism Specialist on how to recognize and proactively address characteristics of ASD and related vocational implications.

In addition to the statewide team, public policy was published on June 1, 2012 to guide counselors for the appropriate use of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). This allows VR Counselors to pay for ABA if a consumer has challenging behaviors or social skill deficits that directly prevent them from obtaining or maintaining employment.

Thus far, the team has noted that the following basic strategies are helping more people with ASD go to work successfully:

  • Slow the overall "process" to allow time for transitions and acclimation to new settings.
  • Use more appropriate assessments to learn how the characteristics of autism might affect employment (such as situational assessments or person-centered planning).
  • Treat challenging behaviors and social skills deficits in the context of the workplace.
  • Focus more on the "job-fit" (make sure that the job tasks and environment supports their strengths).
  • Remember that people on the spectrum are "specialists vs. generalists" (we can use "job carving" to showcase their particular skills or strengths).

Adults with autism are a fast growing population that can become huge assets in our workforce. Partnering with our consumers and families to identify the most appropriate context for employment and to provide the needed supports to engage in meaningful work at a living wage is a most effective goal for VR and the community at large.