Rise Up the System is Broken
RISE UP – THE SYSTEMS ARE BROKEN
Today is Autism Awareness Day. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 1 in 59 people with Autism Spectrum Disorder, 1 in 37 boys and 1 in 151 girls. In 1999, there were 4 million people born in our country, therefore based on autism prevalence each year there will be approximately 59K autistic people turning 18 years old and entering the adult world.
As a nation, are we ready to offer opportunities for employment, post-secondary education and independent living? The short answer is NO!
Vocational Rehabilitation is the government agency that provides funding, not direct services, to assist people with disabilities in finding gainful employment. There are often waiting lists for services from VR. Once services are approved, third-party companies hire minimum-wage employees with limited skill sets to help people with disabilities find appropriate jobs. Even if a family has the resources to hire a job coach privately, the lack of job opportunities is still a problem.
Finding a job that matches the autistic person’s strengths with employer’s needs is difficult. If you find a job match, the next hurdle is getting through the interview process. Autistic people often have trouble in new environments with strangers. They don’t like talking about themselves and aren’t able to promote their attributes to a potential employer.
Companies, large and small, are not prepared to hire a diverse workforce who may need accommodations to perform a job. There are non-profits working on solutions and specialized companies focused on specifically hiring autistic people but these groups are barely making a dent in the employment dilemma for people on the spectrum. Currently, the unemployment rate for autistic adults is 75-85%, regardless of education level.
Over the last five years, we’ve seen the number of students with autism attending post-secondary programs such as technical school, community colleges and universities increase dramatically and those numbers are forecasted to continue to rise dramatically as the rate of autistic students exiting K-12 accelerates.
These students face the same rigorous entrance requirements and are expected to be able to navigate the post-secondary systems the same as their non-disabled peers with only accommodations in place to level the playing field. They do not receive the same types of services the K-12 system was required to provide for them to meet with success.
A student must self -identify, provide documentation and ask for the accommodations they feel are necessary to level the playing field. Then the disability resource center makes a determination about what accommodations will be provided and generates an accommodation letter the student must provide to each professor. Many post-secondary educators are experts in their field of study but do not have an education background and are not familiar with providing supports to people with disabilities.
Autistic students in post-secondary settings are usually able to grasp the content of their courses, but have social, emotional and organizational challenges that make the adult education environment difficult for them to navigate. Recent reports show many fewer students with autism who are capable choose to pursue higher education opportunities and those who do take longer to complete programs and graduate at a much lower rate than their non-disabled peers. George Washington University estimates college enrollment of students with ASD across the country to comprise anywhere from .7% to 1.9% of the college population with an 80% incompletion rate.
As the influx of students on the spectrum continues to grow, our higher education institutions will be challenged to create a new framework for our students to be part of their community and meet graduation requirements.
Right now, there are many barriers to achieving a quality life after school. Long waiting lists for services and many with ASD do not qualify for disability supports. We also have a lack of transportation options, affordable housing, personal care assistance and mentoring programs. Autistic students in inclusive k-12 settings are not given direct instruction in adaptive living skills and have not been taught how to make decisions and problem solve.
People with autism want to be welcomed, to have friends, to be valued for their unique strengths and interests. Today, almost everyone knows someone with autism – awareness has been achieved. Now, those of us who love someone with autism want to move past awareness and strive for acceptance. None of our systems are prepared for people who can do the work but aren’t able to work within the social constructs that are in place. As a nation, we need to get better at this very quickly.
Remember, Never IEP Alone!