Landmark Helps Students With Autism Develop Skills and Strategies to Achieve Career Goals

April 19, 2024 | By Kevin Gray

Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion
A young man speaking with a career services advisor.

TAGS: best practices, candidate selection, career development, diversity and inclusion, Internships, nace insights, recruiting, special population,

Landmark College is an institution located in Vermont exclusively for students who learn differently, including students with a learning disability (such as dyslexia), ADHD, autism, or executive function challenges. Landmark champions a strengths-based model and gives students the skills and strategies they need to achieve their goals.

The work of the college is informed in large part by the Landmark College Institute for Research and Training (LCIRT), which was established in 2001 to pioneer research, discover innovative strategies and practices, and improve teaching and learning outcomes for students with learning disabilities (like dyslexia), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism, and educators in high school and college settings.

To account for the needs of its students, Landmark’s approach to career development includes:

  • Unlimited one-on-one appointments with career counselors that include values inventory, career exploration, defining strengths and interests, and more.
  • Collaboration with faculty, including class visits, credit-bearing internships, and more.
  • Topical workshops regarding careers.
  • A scaffolded approach to career readiness.

“We design almost all that we do—our workshops, one-on-one appointments, recruiting events, and anything else that comes out of our office—based on research from our LCIRT, the best practices of our faculty, and the work of our Center for Neurodiversity. We also consider the work of other research centers and entities,” explains Jan Coplan, senior director of employer relations and career connections at Landmark.

“Still, we find our students to be the most valuable source of information on how to approach and conduct our work with them.”

A large percentage of Landmark’s students are on the autism spectrum. What career connections staff have found is a combination of strengths and abilities among students with autism—"coolabilities,” Landmark calls them—that are valued by employers. These “coolabilities” include:

  • Deep passions and interests, may be particularly skilled in one area;
  • Very honest and loyal;
  • Very detail oriented;
  • Can engage in repetitive tasks;
  • Punctual and rarely miss work;
  • Strong visual thinking; and
  • Logical.

However, there’s a common perception that autistic students are only qualified for work in the tech industry.

“Neurodivergent individuals are not just in the tech industry; their talents are widespread,” Coplan corrects.

“It's just a case of what companies and industries are willing to make the accommodations or build the programs that tech companies have so these students can thrive in their workplace.”

Because autism is on a spectrum, the career connections staff customize their approach to meet individual students’ needs in their career explorations and job searches. For example, some students might have biweekly one-on-one meetings throughout their entire time at Landmark.

“We provide very robust, customized support,” Coplan explains.

“When offering events or workshops, a neurotypical college is going to offer guidance on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing. We still do those pieces, but approach it through the neurodivergent mind. We consider how the neurodivergent student is going to experience an interview and what they are going to feel.”

She points out that customized support is especially important because, oftentimes, autism isn't the student’s singular diagnosis; they often have a co-occurring diagnosis, such as dyslexia or ADHD.

“All that we do accounts for these aspects of a student’s neurodivergence,” Coplan adds.

“The needs of one student on the autism spectrum might be very different from another student’s needs, but because of our ability to assess, get to know them, and build rapport, we become trusted with what those needs are.”

Some students might need to get past a fear of applying for an internship or job. Others might feel anxiety that they won’t know how to answer an interview question or don’t know if it’s appropriate to ask for an accommodation or whether the workplace that they're interested in is the best fit for them. Some might experience a combination of some or all of these barriers.

“By building a relationship with them, we get to know their strengths and values and needs,” Coplan says.

“Through assessment, we're helping them understand who they are and the best work environments—they may need to avoid an office space with multiple cubicles or a lot of stimuli—it’s important to examine culture of the company”

Research-based programming and coaching

The LCIRT conducts groundbreaking research on learning disabilities, ADHD, and autism, and shares that knowledge with educators around the world through webinars, workshops, professional training, and online courses.

“Our [LCIRT] has always informed the work of the career center, first with dyslexia and then ADHD and autism,” Coplan says.

“We get the benefit of access to our researchers; they do lunch and learns and different conferences throughout the academic year that we attend, so we're always on the cutting edge of what these populations need.”

For example, there's currently research being done around impostor syndrome and burnout. Coplan and her team implement the findings in the way they meet with and guide students.

“If we know that burnout is an issue and a student is taking a full academic load and they want to do an internship, we inform them that they're going to encounter burnout because the neurodivergent population is more vulnerable to burnout and fatigue than the neurotypical population,” she says.

“Being aware of what our college students are going to encounter and perhaps struggle with brings a whole new dimension into our work.”

In this example, career connections staff might consider the daily hours an individual student with autism and any co-occurring diagnosis might devote to academics and to their internship.

“Throughout this individual’s day, they are going to be working through a different level of output than a neurotypical candidate would,” Coplan says.

“We help them create boundaries, account for their need to take care of themselves, and structure their time so that they don't take on an opportunity or a career that is going to be overwhelming for them.”

Connecting with neurodivergent-friendly employers

The overarching goal is to find employers—from small businesses to large Fortune 500 corporations—that are neurodivergent-friendly, which, Coplan says, isn’t always apparent from looking at a website.

In vetting organizations, she tries to get a sense whether it is trying to fill a quota or if it realizes the strengths of neurodiversity and is willing to create an environment that's conducive for Landmark students to thrive. Coplan looks for specific statements that an organization is neuroinclusive, hires neurodivergent talent, and/or has individual programs for these hires.

If it’s a business where she hasn’t seen that “seal of approval,” Coplan asks about:

  • The company culture;
  • The application process;
  • Its willingness to make accommodations;
  • Its supervision depth and strategies;
  • Its willingness to provide additional support during the interviewing and onboarding processes;
  • And more.

Among the valued corporate partners that meet Landmark’s criteria are CAI Neurodiverse Solutions—Coplan serves on its advisory board and “has witnessed firsthand the investment they make in their area,” she says—Equinix, EY, and others.

“Fortunately, it's rare that I speak to a business or an organization that is just trying to fill a quota. More often, employers are committed to actively recruiting and supporting our students,” Coplan says.

“What's been exciting for me is that when I first started in this role more than eight years ago, I was doing a lot of the outreach and pitch about our college, its students, and their strengths. Now, I have employers contacting me because they know the college, they know our work and amazing students, and they are actively recruiting neurodivergent students. While I still do the vetting, this development is fantastic and has altered the landscape of my job.”

Lessons learned

Coplan has learned myriad lessons throughout her work with neurodivergent students. One is the importance of work experience. Landmark’s Employment Readiness Experience program helps students learn professional skills while working on campus.

“Often, with this population, students have been navigating getting through high school or college, so a lot of time and energy has been spent on their academic pursuits and they haven't worked a job in the summer or volunteered. I think the fact that we developed this program based on the lack of work experience is a key aspect of their career readiness,” she says.

“We're learning new things every day. I love my job because it's constantly evolving, and we are improving and innovating all the time.”

Another key lesson Landmark career connections staff have learned is to ensure the student has really thought through a work environment and understands the role.

“We teach them and help them to do their research in the granular,” Coplan explains.

“It’s not just that these are the skills that are needed, and this is the salary, and this is the where the job is located. We break it down into the logistics of them understanding the transportation needed to get there, knowing the living situation, navigating the company culture and the job demands, and much more to give them a clearer picture of the opportunity and how it might fit for them.”

Just as fit is important, so is communication. Coplan cautions against making assumptions while coaching students with autism.

“Once we get all of the facts, we are very specific and careful in communicating them,” she advises.

“Our students may understand something in a way that’s more black and white and binary, while I may see it in more of a global way. This is not the case for every autistic student I work with, but it is important to avoid assumptions and ensure there are no misunderstandings.”

For employers seeking to recruit and hire students with autism and their co-occurring diagnoses, the first step is accessibility.

“Sometimes we go to the website of an employer that wants to hire our students and the application process is cumbersome,” Coplan says.

“Imagine someone who has a co-occurring diagnosis of dyslexia, and they have to read through this copious document with a lot of superfluous information. That is daunting for them. Employers can make it neurodivergent-friendly and accessible by including just what’s relevant. In doing so, the employer is removing a barrier.”

Another barrier to address is the interview. Coplan mentions that some employers put students—including those with autism and co-occurring diagnoses—through three or four interviews.

“They’ll say that it’s to get to know the student, but for a neurodivergent student with a college course load, it’s overwhelming,” she says.

Coplan is proposing a shift in college recruitment to be more embracing and honoring of the autistic individual. What does this entail? Perhaps, instead of conducting an interview with an autistic candidate, employers conduct an activity during which the student is able to demonstrate their skills and qualifications instead of having to articulate them.

“This might be an assessment or gamification that demonstrates their skills that are relevant for the role,” Coplan suggests.

“Match those skills with the position that they're applying for. If I make a suggestion for an adjustment, accommodation, or an alternative approach like this and receive pushback from an employer—"I don't think we can do that,” “We can't provide the questions beforehand,” or “We don't have that culture here”—it may not be a good fit. Most employers are receptive and can support our students, making this a more fluid, embracing process for them. Employers are always learning, too, and once we make this paradigm shift, it will be a better experience for neurodivergent students and for the employers who welcome them.”

Landmark College offers information for employers about recruiting neurodivergent candidates.

blank default headshot of a user Kevin Gray is an associate editor at NACE. He can be reached at

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