Career bootcamps prepare students with autism for the workforce

As more colleges offer programs for students living with autism spectrum disorder, advocates are encouraging institutions to consider job preparation an essential component of that support, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Researchers estimate that between 707,000 and 1,116,000 youth on the autism spectrum will enter adulthood in the current decade. However, current unemployment and underemployment rates for adults on the spectrum are reported near 80%, according to the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Neurodiverse Hiring Initiative (NHI).

The Chronicle highlights RIT’s NHI as a leading-edge effort to strengthen employment outcomes for its autistic students and graduates. Programs like RIT’s two- to three-week Career Ready Bootcamp support job-seeking students with autism by offering mock interviews and performance reviews and additional preparation for the interview process, which can be an obstacle for adults on the spectrum.

Interviewers tend to favor applicants who make regular eye contact, read social cues, and laugh at their jokes, says Zoe Gross, Director of Advocacy for the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Although a candidate with autism may be qualified for a position, they may not exhibit those expected behaviors.

Related: College students with autism find academic, emotional support in specialized programs >

To reduce these barriers to employment, RIT’s NHI helps companies find neurodiverse candidates; provides them with additional resources on training, recruiting, and supervising best practices; and offers consultation and neurodiversity experts once a student is hired. “Companies are recognizing that they need to work on diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Kendra Evans, who runs the boot camp. “Neurodiversity is another type they need to be thinking of.”

Around 100 colleges in 2022 offered support programs for students on the spectrum, but few provided job preparation as extensive as RIT’s bootcamp. To prepare students living with autism for job interviews, experts suggest programs geared toward students on the spectrum focus on teaching soft skills, such as communication, compromise, and overcoming setbacks. They should also encourage internships with autism-friendly employers and forge partnerships with businesses that prioritize inclusive employment practices. Advocates say, however, the aim of these programs is not for neurodiverse students to hide their autistic traits but to ensure they know the “unspoken rules and cultures” of the workforce, says Laurie Ackles, director of RIT’s Spectrum Support Program.

Major companies, including tech giants SAP and Microsoft, now have hiring initiatives that recruit neurodiverse applicants, both to increase access for job seekers on the spectrum and to improve the companies’ bottom line. Both parties benefit, says Amy-Jane Griffiths, an assistant professor of clinical counseling at Chapman University and expert on autism and employment. “People who think differently can really change the way an organization problem-solves and innovates.”

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