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Vocational Rehabilitation Service Models
for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Project Need Print E-mail

Employment rates are declining for persons with disabilities (Stapleton & Burkhauser, 2003). Only 3 out of every 10 individuals with disabilities are working full- or part-time, and two thirds of individuals who are not working would like to be working, according to the National Organization on Disability and Louis Harris & Associates (2000). The more severe the disability, the less likely a person is to be employed. People without severe disabilities are 8 times more likely to be employed than people with very severe disabilities (N.O.D., 2000).

Individuals with ASD are among those within the disability community least likely to be employed (Dew & Alan, 2007; Cameto, et al., 2003); according to Cameto, et al., (2003), only 15 percent of persons with autism are employed. Although a number of external factors, from market trends to employer discrimination, can impact employment outcomes (Hernandez, et al., 2006), employment outcomes can be improved by addressing specific behaviors common among people with ASD

The Institute on Rehabilitation Issues on ASD (Dew & Alan, 2007) identified a number of characteristics of the current vocational rehabilitation service delivery system that present barriers to successful employment outcomes for persons with ASD: Vocational rehabilitation counselors' involvement with public schools often does not begin until the student with ASD is about to graduate. Few VR counselors have training or experience in working with people with ASD. Vocational rehabilitation services are oriented around seeking successful closure (Status 26) as efficiently, effectively, and quickly as possible. A consumer with ASD, however, often needs long-term support without which employment placements would be lost. There is a severe shortage of agencies that provide specialized services for adults with ASD.

Few supported employment job coaches have the specialized knowledge and skills needed to effectively support persons with ASD in employment settings. Research information describing best practices for facilitating the employment of persons with ASD is extremely limited.

Pathways to Competitive Employment

Many consumers, advocates, and scholars emphasize the relevance and social benefit of integrated work settings, as opposed to segregated settings such as sheltered workshops. Integrated work settings are consistent with full community inclusion and the opportunity for people with disabilities to interact on an equal basis with non-disabled individuals, other than the service providers or VR counselors who are assisting the consumer (Wehman, 2006c). Successful competitive employment outcomes for people with ASD were once perceived to be highly unlikely (Mawhood & Howlin, 1999; Nesbitt, 2000). Today, however, given new technologies and other supports to assist people with ASD in competitive employment settings, more are being successful as shown in recent RSA data regarding Status 26 closures. New research is showing that growing numbers of individuals with ASD can work in a variety of community-based businesses and industries (Schaller & Yang, 2005; Boeltzig, Timmons, & Butterworth, 2008). However, the vast majority of people with ASD remain unemployed (Dew & Alan, 2007).

Addressing the Need

The mission of the Vocational Rehabilitation and Autism Spectrum Disorders project is to conduct high quality research and knowledge translation activities to improve employment services and outcomes for consumers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The Vocational Rehabilitation and Autism Spectrum Disorders project will accomplish its goals by examining and addressing the factors and service delivery approaches that are predictive of employment success.


Boeltzig, H., Timmons, J.C., & Butterworth, J. (2008). Entering work: Employment outcomes of people with developmental disabilities. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 31(3),217-223.

Cameto, R., Marder, C., Wagner, M., & Cardoso, D. (2003). Youth employment. NLTS2 DataBrief, 2(2), 1-6.

Dew, D. W., & Alan, G. M. (Eds.). (2007). Rehabilitation of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Institute on Rehabilitation Issues Monograph no. 32). Washington, DC: The George Washington University, Center for Rehabilitation Counseling Research and Education.

Hernandez, B., Cometa, M. J., Rosen, J., Velcoff, J., Schober, D., & Luna, R. D. (2006). Perspectives of people with disabilities on employment, vocational rehabilitation, and the Ticket to Work program. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 27(3), 191-201.

Mawhood, L., & Howlin, P. (1999). The outcome of a supported employment scheme for high functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome. Autism, 3(3), 229-254.

National Organization on Disability. (2000). Employment rates of people with disabilities. Excerpted from the N.O.D./Harris 2000 survey of Americans with disabilities. Washington, DC: Louis Harris & Associates.

Nesbitt, S. (2000). Why and why not? Factors influencing employment for individuals with Asperger syndrome. Autism, 4(4), 357-369.

Schaller, J. & Yang, N. K. (2005). Competitive employment for people with autism: Correlates of successful closure in competitive and supported employment. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 49(1), 4-16.

Stapleton, D. C., & Burkhauser, R. V. (Eds.). (2003). The decline in employment of people with disabilities: A policy puzzle. Kalamazoo, MI: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

Wehman, P. (2006c). Transition: The bridge from youth to adulthood. In P. Wehman, Life beyond the classroom, pp. 3-39. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.