Special Education Opinion

Why Job Training Matters for Students With Autism

By Susan Senator — February 19, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When my severely autistic son was high school age, the local public school system offered him a placement at the high school. I remember feeling the swell of hope in my throat as I met with the administrators. Nat ... at the high school, one of the best in the country! Up until then, Nat had attended private autism programs most of his school career because there were no district-based programs for him. Born in 1989, Nat was at the beginning of the huge autism wave that was to come. His childhood had been very lonely, with few options. I had been swallowing down dreams of inclusion for my firstborn for so many years.

I went to that team meeting expecting it to be pro forma: Of course I wanted this for Nat. But as the meeting progressed, my heart sank. This was not a placement I could accept for my son, who was enrolled in a year-round program at his private school and was just beginning vocational training—training that was hands-on, in the community, real-life, working with a job coach. The high school program, on the other hand, had no vocational program to show me. “It is individualized,” they explained to me. But how could I sign on to something so ill-defined when certainty, prediction, and preparedness are a lifeline for so many autistic students, including my son? The school system ended up sending Nat back to his private school for five more years, to the tune of around $80,000 a year in public school dollars.

I hope that more high schools and community colleges can work together to provide practical, targeted job-training programs."

As a former school committee member, I know that the lack of adequate vocational training is not uncommon in our country’s high schools. So what happens to the kids not bound for four-year colleges? Especially the students with severe special needs, who perhaps more than anyone need to learn skills for a demanding, intolerant world—a world in which social programs and supports are being cut to the bone. The number of opportunities for guys like Nat is little to none. In my state, as well as many others, if someone like Nat is going to work in the world, he will have to qualify for Medicaid waiver money through the state department of developmental services so that he can obtain a job coach. And then he’ll have to actually land a job.

Now, I’m one of those mothers—you know the kind—so Nat actually does have a job, three days a week, at a local supermarket. And we are thrilled. But this is because his private autism school had a serious vocational-training program. Most of Nat’s peers, with challenges similar to his, are not as fortunate. They languish in day habilitations (DayHabs); they are lucky if they can do volunteer Meals on Wheels work a few times a week, if their DayHab is savvy enough to organize such a thing. Mostly, though, they take walks, go to the mall and the gym, wipe off tables at their DayHabs—and they color.

My question is this: Is it really so complicated to job-train people on the autism spectrum or with an intellectual disability? My answer: Not if you have the right attitude and a carefully planned program.

But what if your high school does not have the resources, staff, or space for voc. ed.?


The answer may be right down the block, at a community college. When I’m not being Nat’s mom, I work for the Community College Consortium on Autism and Intellectual Disabilities, or CCCAID, a nationwide group of community colleges that offer job and career training specifically targeted to people with autism and intellectual disabilities. CCCAID has partnered with the food-services company Thompson Hospitality to create a national certification program that will provide a bona fide path to jobs in the hospitality industry to students high school age and older with autism or intellectual disabilities. The hope is to offer the certification starting this fall, and CCCAID expects to add other corporate partners down the line.

With these programs, community colleges throughout the country will not only be able to offer job training, but also to train students with disabilities for independent living. The students will acquire skills and earn certificates that have been vetted by hospitality-industry employers themselves. They will graduate from the program able to do exactly what Thompson, a $350 million corporation, requires its employees to do. And many will come away with independent-living skills that will enable them to be less dependent on public aid.

Through such opportunities, school administrators will gain confidence that their students with significant disabilities are getting the training they need to survive. And, employers will be able to hire community college students with full confidence in their training. Forget doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; the hospitality industry will want to hire guys like Nat, who have come through the certification process. No guesswork involved. Employers get trained workers specific to the industry, and employees with disabilities get a job for which they were trained.

Employers will hire these community college graduates because of their skill set; it will not be an act of charity. And for the mother in me, that is the best news of all, because it signifies a real sociological shift—one in which a young man like Nat is a sought-after employee, not someone completely dependent on the government. Partnerships and programs like the one with Thompson Hospitality mean that people previously marginalized for their disabilities will now have a chance to participate in the job force, because of their abilities.

The swell of students on the autism spectrum is flooding K-12 schools and is likely to move on to community college campuses next. I hope that more high schools and community colleges can work together to provide practical, targeted job-training programs so that these students are not set up to fail, but to succeed. And best of all, for guys like Nat, the prospect of employment and some measure of independence no longer has to remain a mother’s wish.

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Train Students With Autism for Life


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education These Grants Could Help Students With Disabilities Access Jobs, Training
The Ed. Dept. is investing $236 million to help with transitions to careers and post-secondary education.
3 min read
Collage of a woman in a wheelchair on a road leading to a large dollar sign. In the woman's hair is a ghosted photo of hands on a laptop.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Special Education Download DOWNLOADABLE: Does Your School Use These 10 Dimensions of Student Belonging?
These principles are designed to help schools move from inclusion of students with disabilities in classrooms to true belonging.
1 min read
Image of a group of students meeting with their teacher. One student is giving the teacher a high-five.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva
Special Education Inside a School That Doesn’t Single Out Students With Special Needs
Students with disabilities at this school near Seattle rarely have to leave mainstream rooms to receive the services they need.
8 min read
During recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., students have cards with objects and words on them so that all students, including those who cannot speak, can communicate. Pictured here on April 2, 2024.
During recess at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., students have access to cards with objects and words on them so that all students, including those who do not speak, can communicate. Pictured here, a student who has been taught how to lead and use commands with a campus service dog does so under the supervision of a staff member on April 2, 2024.
Meron Menghistab for Education Week
Special Education 5 Tips to Help Students With Disabilities Feel Like They Belong
An expert on fostering a sense of belonging in schools for students with disabilities offers advice on getting started.
4 min read
At Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash., special education students are fully a part of the general education classrooms. What that looks like in practice is students together in the same space but learning separately – some students are with the teacher, some with aides, and some are on their own with a tablet. Pictured here on April 2, 2024.
A student works with a staff member at Ruby Bridges Elementary School in Woodinville, Wash. on April 2, 2024. Special education students at the school are fully a part of general education classrooms.
Meron Menghistab for Education Week