Supporting Employers in Hiring Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum: Lessons Learned from a Corporate Internship Program
Objectives: The UCLA Child and Adult Neurodevelopmental (CAN) Clinic and the PEERS© Clinic are collaborating with a national company to develop employment training for college students with ASD and employer education for potential employers in the Greater Los Angeles area. The aim of the current study is to conduct qualitative interviews with employers to determine how to best support employers in hiring interns with ASD and supporting them in the workplace. Employers at the partner company who participated in a pilot internship program for young adults with ASD were invited to participate in a focus group to identify the “key ingredients” needed during the hiring and support process for individuals with ASD in the workplace.
Methods: A 1-hour focus group was led by a Licensed Psychologist with members of the company’s ASD internship program, as well as members of a partner firm’s pilot ASD internship. The group was audiotaped with permission from all participants, transcribed verbatim, and independently coded for major conceptual models. Exploratory, qualitative analyses was conducted using a modified grounded theory approach.
Results: Salient themes from the interview with employers included identifying appropriate expectations for interns, flexibility in management style and frequency, and flexibility in tasks assigned based upon intern strengths and weaknesses. Difficulties managing schedule, speed of completing tasks, and difficulties with flexible problem solving were reported to be significant challenges affecting intern success. Greater frequency and intensity of management, particularly when learning new tasks, was described as significantly improving intern success. The corporate culture was also described as an essential component of intern success, with both companies reporting some brief psychoeducation with employees and clients regarding interns’ strengths and needs. Improved social interaction skills and confidence in managing job-related tasks were observed across the internship period. Financing for the internship program was stable, as both companies have on-going internship budgets.
Conclusions: Integrating young adults with ASD into the corporate workplace is feasible with appropriate expectations and sufficient management support. Variability in intern strengths and weaknesses impacts job content and pace; intern skills must be determined prior to the internship to ensure appropriate fit. Creating an accepting corporate culture that supports interns and their supervisors in navigating challenges is of great importance. Improvement in social functioning was reported without targeted intervention in this domain, suggesting that the workplace setting may provide in-vivo social communication training for young adults with ASD. Evaluation of employer’ knowledge of, comfort with, and needs for working with individuals with ASD is needed and ongoing to support development of broader employer outreach and training.