This is a post by Sarah Andrews, Autism Speaks Coordinator of Adult Services, as well as the mother of two sons with autism.
Many people graduating from high school or college get the following advice: “Choose something you love to do and you will never have to work a day in your life.” For many of us, the journey to find something we love can be complicated. Typically, we discover our interests through an abundance of different experiences and opportunities to discover these desired pursuits. The beautiful thing about autism is that many people on the spectrum have special interests that they have had since childhood, and that often grow stronger and more extensive over time. A real opportunity for success lies in turning these special interests into fulfilling careers for these individuals.
In the case of my two boys, both diagnosed on the autism spectrum, their interests vary from each other considerably. One of Jacob’s special interests is cars. Jacob spends a lot of leisure time looking up cars on YouTube and Google. He wants to know every detail about whatever car he is interested in at the time: What year is it? What are the special features? What company makes it? As parents, how can we encourage turning specialized interests into careers? When Jacob is old enough to work, he may be interested in working at a car museum. He may use his technical skills to become a mechanic or work on restoring old cars.
In the case of my youngest son, Ben, his special interests include history of the Revolutionary War and animals. When he was only a toddler, Ben collected as many little toy animal figurines as he could find. This interest stayed with him and he now spends his leisure time taking care of our pets and tracking down every dog he knows in the neighborhood. I can very clearly see him starting a career in animal husbandry or studying the animal sciences in college. He may even become a college professor of history and participate in historical reenactments.
How can we best support our children’s interests so that they can be leveraged into careers that will be fulfilling for them? A good idea is to provide individuals with opportunities for work experience at a young age. Give them chores to do at home. Allow them to walk a dog in the neighborhood. When the individuals reach middle school, have them get a paper route or assist them in obtaining employment at an area car dealer.
When individuals with autism reach transition age, it is crucial that they have employment skills written into their IEP as part of their Transition Plan. Providing our loved ones with as much work experience as possible when they are still under their educational entitlement will be a huge advantage when that entitlement ends and they “age out” of the school system. Hopefully, they will have already worked for several years by the time they leave high school.
Additional helpful activities can include finding mentors who are in a field related to your child’s interests to help encourage and expand his or her knowledge base. Encourage your child to join clubs based on special interests to increase social opportunities and build up long-lasting and meaningful social connections. Give your child opportunities to enroll in classes and workshops related to his or her interests. There are countless online courses in many of areas of study and some are offered free of charge. Institutions that offer online courses include Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Mooc, and MIT-Open Courseware.
Focus on your child’s strengths and interests and hopefully he or she will find a career that is fulfilling and rewarding.
For additional information on employment and postsecondary education be sure to check out the Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit, Postsecondary Educational Opportunities Guide, as well as our Transition Tool Kit.