“I’m Destined to Ace This”: Work Experience Placement for High School Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder
The transition from high school to tertiary education, work or other community options is often challenging for youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This transition can be particularly difficult for those with unique social, communication, and behavioural characteristics. It is widely recognised that postsecondary outcomes for adolescents with ASD are poor, with a critical need for programs that build better pathways to employment and education for these young people.
This study investigates the experiences of high school students with ASD who engaged in a short-term work experience program in the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) industry in preparation for their transition to tertiary education or work. Factors contributing to a successful work experience were explored as well as the perceived value of the program from the perspectives of adolescents, parents and employers.
A qualitative study based on a grounded theory framework employed focus groups and interviews to explore the experiences of the work experience program with five adolescents with ASD, six parents and six supervisors in October-November 2017 and October 2018. Thematic analysis explored key factors and outcomes of the work experience program.
Environmental factors including support from parents, attitudes, understanding and knowledge of supervisors and colleagues influenced the success of the program. Parents played a key role in providing support to get to the workplace and advice on workplace attire. Gaining knowledge on ASD and how to communicate with adolescents with ASD prior to the placement enabled supervisors and colleagues to provide them with better support. Recognising the specialised skills and abilities of the adolescents with ASD and harnessing them by the supervisors was a contributing factor to the program outcomes. Supervisors employed a strengths-based approach to harness adolescents’ skills and strengths, directing them to tasks capturing their interest and eliciting their qualities and abilities. Developing and applying ICT-related skills, leadership and time management skills during the placement contributed to the program outcomes. Through the placement, adolescents were exposed to a real work environment enabling them to gain practical insights into the workplace. Placements built parents hope for their child’s future, while adolescents recognised their potential and strengths and gained confidence, assisting them in planning their career pathways. New perspectives and diverse ideas brought by the adolescents positively contributed to the company productivity. From an economic perspective, the return to the host organisations outweighed the effort required. Adolescents with ASD were treated as a capable team members who produced high quality work. Employers were more aware of ASD, including the strengths and challenges it brought to the work place.
Providing work experience placement to adolescents with ASD may improve the transition process from school to further education and work. This study provides evidence to support this approach as an early support for adolescents with ASD in facilitating post school transition. This early experience supports adolescents with ASD in seeking a future which meets their vocational and career aspirations. This study may inform a framework for designing transition interventions for adolescents with ASD.