Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
Autism spectrum disorders are a group of neurodevelopmental disorders with widely varying degrees of challenges, such as persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction, or restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.
Janine Rowe, assistant director of disability services in the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education, explains that some common strengths and challenges associated with autism spectrum disorders are:
- Tendency to be logical.
- Encyclopedic knowledge.
- Often highly skilled particular area.
- Honest and direct.
- Novel ways of thinking.
- Superior memory.
- Difficulty perceiving emotional states of others.
- Grasping the “big” picture.
- An uneven set of skills.
- Difficulty expressing empathy.
- Difficulty taking perspective of others.
- Sensory sensitivities.
To better understand the needs of the students at your school on the autism spectrum, career services practitioners should connect with the disability services office, Rowe recommends.
Staff there can offer strategies and suggestions for working with this student population—such as common accommodations used—and can assist with connecting students with employers. Creating partnerships across campus to provide support for these students is crucial, Rowe points out.
“Often students on the autism spectrum have many forms of support from different departments on campus and close collaboration can help reduce these service redundancies,” she says. “This also sends the message to the student that career services is a safe and supportive space to discuss concerns related to disability.”
Rowe and her staff work with the RIT human resources department to offer training for career services, academic advisers, and faculty about the strengths and challenges associated with autism spectrum disorders. They also developed a training session called “Hiring on the Spectrum” for URR professionals.
“That said, individuals on the autism spectrum are the greatest source of information,” Rowe says. “It can be as simple as asking the individual what works best for them.”
Or it can be something more. This past spring, a group of students on the autism spectrum sat on a panel for RIT’s employee advisory board to share their experiences with job searching, attending career fairs, and interviewing.
In addition, career services and employers can work together to help students on the spectrum with their career explorations and job searches. To do so, career centers should ensure staff members are trained in “disability in the workplace” topics, and can identify resources to go to for more information when needed.
“Both students and employers have found success in meeting each other in low-risk settings, such as a networking event or a meet and greet,” Rowe says.
An employer may elect to present on a career development topic and work with career services to connect with the autism population on campus, she says, adding that employers have committed to hiring at least one student with a disability or including a student on the autism spectrum as part of their group of summer interns.
There can be obstacles to providing assistance to students on the autism spectrum. For example, the flow of information isn’t always wide open as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) limits to whom campus personnel may disclose disability information (such as disability services staff and individuals identified by the student’s expressed consent).
“Career services staff cannot share disability related information with employers without the student’s express consent,” Rowe notes. “However, staff can encourage students to review the positive reasons for sharing this information with others, including potential employers.”
She explains that the increased popularity of the “neurodiversity” movement has led to many people on the autism spectrum to recognize their unique skills sets and abilities.
“Some people on the autism spectrum might share this information so that colleagues can get to know them better,” Rowe says. “In these cases, it is always best for the individual to be in control of what information is shared, to whom, and when.”
From the career services perspective, working with students with autism differs from working with students who are not on the spectrum because, for instance, job searching involves a certain amount of social prowess and self-advocacy.
“Many job seekers on the autism spectrum struggle with social communication and may fall behind their peers in the job search, even though they are highly academically capable,” Rowe says. “At RIT, we provide increased support to students on the autism spectrum, particularly in practicing interviewing skills. We also work with students to identify the right work environments for their skills and abilities and help keep them organized and productive during the job search.”
She explains that practitioners tend to use productivity tools—including holding short, frequent coaching meetings with written follow-up reviewing students’ responsibilities, or providing an outline of everything that is going to be covered in an upcoming meeting—more than formal accommodations.
Rowe offers several other tips for effectively working with students on the autism spectrum:
- Be clear and direct—Try to avoid idioms and sarcasm, these might be misunderstood. Provide written instructions over e-mail or text to augment the advice you gave during your meeting.
- Request formal accommodations for the interview process as needed—Some common accommodations for students on the autism spectrum are requesting the interview questions ahead of time, requesting an alternate interview format (such as phone), and asking for extended time or an alternate location if an assessment or project is given as part of the interview process.
- Be ready to provide additional support—If problems occur, discuss the nature of your observation sensitively and ask if the student feels they need more support. Develop close relationships with student support offices on campus and work together for student support when appropriate.
“Most of all, have fun!” Rowe says. “Many students on the autism spectrum have highly developed interests and would love to talk with you about their favorite hobbies. Sharing in a students’ enthusiasm is one of the best ways to bond with a student and it goes a long way in developing your relationship.”