Between 1997 and 2008, the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) increased almost fourfold, according to the National Health Interview survey. The 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health indicated that 1.1 percent of all children born in this country are on the autism spectrum.
The number of children diagnosed with ASD who will grow to adulthood over the next 10 to 15 years numbers in the millions. This raises an obvious question. Once they age out of the services mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, can these individuals be absorbed into mainstream society and the labor market, and if so, how?
There are some individuals, such as Temple Grandin, who were diagnosed with autism as children and then found ways to make valuable contributions in their specific fields (in Grandin’s case, animal management for the livestock industry). Dr. Stephen Shore is another example. He is a 51-year-old adult with autism who is an assistant professor of Special Education at Adelphi University.
They serve as inspirational role models and sources of hope for the parents of today’s children with autism. But they are also the rare exceptions rather than the rule. They were products of an unusual combination of strong parental support, expert training and education, as well as extraordinary personal perseverance. Their experiences cannot be duplicated on a scale to match the needs of the tidal wave of children with autism who will be coming of age in a few years, and certainly not with the techniques, infrastructure and resources available today.
According to Dr. Shore, the key to successfully mainstreaming individuals with autism is to accept them for who they are. Rather than trying to eliminate or ignore their autistic characteristics, we should help them to make the necessary adaptations to enable them to function successfully, in much the same way that a nearsighted individual does when he puts on a pair of glasses. Employers in particular need to understand that these individuals can function productively in their workplace, “by shifting the emphasis from focusing on their deficits to using their strengths.”
Today, about 90% of adults on the autism spectrum in this country are unemployed or underemployed, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. In coming years, the numbers of people with autism aging out of grade school will double, and then double again. We will need to find constructive ways to help them utilize the skills and abilities that they do have, instead of focusing on their autistic behavioral patterns or lack of social skills which can be easily accommodated in the workplace, but only if there is truly a desire by management to do so.
Obviously, we are not talking about those individuals who are so profoundly affected by autism that they cannot communicate or function with others effectively. But it is both possible and necessary for us as a society to provide opportunities for the gainful employment and social acceptance of higher functioning individuals on the autism spectrum. This will significantly enhance their happiness and self-esteem, and benefit society as a whole, by turning them into productive citizens instead of lifelong burdens.
Many of these individuals can do much more than bag groceries, re-stock shelves or do other menial jobs, which is often the only type of work available to them today. Employers need to understand that many of these individuals have valuable skills, some directly related to their autism, making them particularly well-suited for certain types of productive work.
For example, an article published by the New York Times in January, 2010, described the unique contribution made for more than 50 years by George Kramer, then 71, to a small hardware store in Flatbush which still bore the Kramer name.
George had severe behavioral problem as a child, but his parents rejected the advice of doctors at the time who called him “mentally retarded” and recommended that he be placed in an institution such as the notorious Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. Instead, George’s parents kept him at home and put him to work doing chores in his father’s hardware store.
Over the years, George proved to be not only capable, but indispensable to the store’s operation. He was always scrupulously honest and reliable in performing his daily duties, which expanded to include handling incoming phone calls to the store, preparing it for the start of business each morning and closing it securely every night.