New research suggests schools should build on these students' strengths
By CAROLYN T. GEER
Schools are typically tasked with ferreting out what students can't do and teaching them how to do it.
But for students with autism, perhaps the focus should be on what they can do.
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University recently published the first study of its kind to demonstrate that the strengths of youths with autism can be parlayed into gainful employment given the right educational program.
Autism is a set of complex neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by mild to severe impairments in communication and social interaction, as well as restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviors and interests. Children with autism typically undergo years of specialized education, and many are endowed with good memories, systematic ways of working, or an eye for detail—not to mention savant skills in math, music or art. Yet only 10% of them find jobs in adulthood.
The Right Fit
For the Virginia study, a control group of high-school seniors with autism remained in their regular schools, receiving their usual individualized education programs, while a treatment group spent the year in an intensive, custom-designed study and job-training program at a suburban hospital. The two hospitals participating in the study were Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Henrico County, Va., and Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital in Midlothian, Va.
Damien Jenerette became a pharmacy technician at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital.
At the beginning and end of each school day, the treatment group met in on-site classrooms where they learned job skills, as well as practical skills such as getting to and from work, navigating the hospital, asking for help, and accepting input from supervisors and co-workers. In between, the students rotated through a series of three internships, honing their skills and testing out which jobs best fit their strengths and personality.
Upon graduation, 87% of the treatment group landed hospital jobs such as pharmacy assistant and teacher's aide that paid above the minimum wage. Just 6% of the control group found jobs.
Carol Schall, a researcher involved in the study, says a key was discovering each student's unique set of skills. For instance, one radiology department provided too much down time for a socially awkward student who wasn't good with chitchat. He eventually found his niche restocking isolation carts throughout the hospital. Like many of his peers with autism, he excelled at repetitive tasks that require intense focus and attention to detail.
"We were looking for what they did well and where they could be strong, not what they didn't do well and how we were going to teach them to do it—huge difference," says Ms. Schall, whose study included all but the most severely impaired students.
In the Zone
Entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne, who has a son with autism, believes at least 5% of all tasks in any business are suited to employees with the skills that those with autism typically bring to the table.
At Specialisterne, the Danish information-technology company he founded, people with autism are hired and trained to work as software testers, programmers and the like. In addition to learning specific job skills, they participate in problem-solving exercises using Lego Mindstorms robot technology and Scrum (a teamwork process for software development.) A recent challenge: improving the quality of life for wheelchair-bound seniors.
In May, Mr. Sonne launched Specialisterne U.S.A. with the goal of eventually creating 100,000 U.S. jobs for people with autism and similar disorders.
The challenge is twofold, he says: preparing the trainees for the corporate world and preparing society for the trainees—for example, teaching employers to "say what you mean and mean what you say," since many people with autism have trouble interpreting sarcasm and body language.
"When our employees are in their comfort zone, they can do wonderful things," Mr. Sonne says.
Ms. Geer is the The Wall Street Journal's Investing Basics columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org