Rethinking Employment Opportunities for Adults with Autism

Scott Standifer
Disability Policy and Studies Office
School of Health Professions
University of Missouri

Introduction from the editors:

Many of our readers are from outside the United States, or have children with autism under the age of 16, and so are not yet fully aware of some of the elements of employment and employment planning for adults with disabilities in the US, including autism. The following brief summary is an orientation.

In 1973, the United States passed a law that directed federal and state authorities to assist people with disabilities to find employment. In the same time period, the US mandated that children with disabilities must receive educational services, and to be provided with planning for transition from the school years to subsequent employment. In the subsequent years, transition from school to work has evolved in many ways.

In the US, the system for helping people with disabilities find employment is called “vocational rehabilitation,” or Voc Rehab.

Back in the 1970s, there were thought to be only three alternatives for employment for people with disabilities, including autism:

  1. “Competitive employment,” meaning “a regular job”– employment in the same settings and with the same supports as a person without a disability; – that is to say, few to none.
  2. “Supported employment,” meaning nearly “a regular job” with additional systems of supports, such as a “job coach” or a job specifically developed for the person.
  3. “Sheltered” or “secure” employment (also called “a workshop job” , meaning a job in facility specifically designed for people with mental or physical disabilities). “Sheltered” may mean that the setting does not provide training that would allow for more independence, while “secure” tends to mean that workers also have further training in work skills and other social/behavior aspects that may later lead to more independence.

Over time, this model has been tested and adapted, as both the field of vocational rehabilitation has grown and the specific experiences of individuals with disabilities have revealed other needs.

The author of this post, Scott Standifer, is a leader in recognizing the specific employment challenges facing adults with autism, and in finding ways to meet those needs. He is one of the principals in a national conference to be held March 3-4 in St. Louis, MO, Autism Works. The goals of the conference are to enable people with autism, allies of those with autism, and vocational rehabilitation professionals to meet and develop new approaches to developing and sustaining employment for people with autism. Details on the Autism Works conference are available at or at

In this post, Standifer interviews Cary Griffin, another leader in rethinking the employment needs for adults with disabilities, and specifically for those with autism.

Cary Griffin is a noted disability employment consultant and author, and is a senior partner at Griffin-Hammis Associates, a nation-wide consulting firm that helps to develop employment opportunities for people with all kinds of disabilities. He has a long history in the field, with a special interest in nurturing self-employment for people with disabilities.

Griffin believes that traditional vocational rehabilitation supports (training for job seeking, interviewing skills, resume writing, etc.) are not the best answer to develop jobs for people with autism.

Speaking from his home in Montana, Griffin says, “Traditional job development (searching want ads, cold calling, using word-of-mouth connections), from an economic point of view, has always been based on faith and charity. You hear it in the comment “Well, no one would give me a chance”. Why should they? That’s not what business owners are there to do. It is up to us to make an argument for how this person can contribute and earn a paycheck – just as we all do for our own paychecks.”

While people on the autism spectrum have some unique support needs for employment, Griffin says the failure of traditional job placement and job development strategies is not autism-specific. These traditional approaches have never worked well for any group of people with disabilities. He calls it “a dependence model and a poverty model” of employment.
Griffin is an advocate for a philosophy called Customized Employment. This term was coined from the top in 2001, when the Office of Disability Employment (ODEP) was created within the US Department of Labor. As always, it takes time for ideas to reach fruition with real clients.

The Customized Employment (CE) approach starts with building a deep-knowledge profile of the person with autism (or other disability), goes on to define the “ideal conditions of employment” for that specific person, and then engaging potential employers in interest-based negotiations that reveal the benefits which hiring a specific person will have for both parties.

“We have to mine the conditions and supply chains for businesses for opportunities for employment,” Griffin comments. This means looking at what resources, supplies, and services local businesses need and how the particular individual might provide those. Griffin often proposes various types of self-employment as customized employment solutions. And the CE philosophy is achieving great successes for some clients.

One example Griffin points to is a young man with autism named Jason. Jason runs a towel sterilizing business that services local barber shops, tanning salons, and beauty parlors in a large metro area. Using the customized employment model, Jason’s support team first defined the “ideal conditions of employment” for a clear understanding of what would work for Jason. Jason’s father is a barber, which helped refine the business design. Today Jason not only has a successful business, he also has a part-time employee who drives to do deliveries and pickups with Jason, and to handle sales. Jason has not only found a job; he is helping local businesses be profitable and is creating employment for someone else.

In another example, a young man with autism named James has strong computer skills but lives in a rural area. James’ support team noted there was a moderately large company with many small offices scattered across the rural area. Each office needed a computer technical support person, but the company could not afford to have someone on site across so many offices. James now meets that need by providing remote computer diagnostics. When an employee of the company has trouble, he or she calls James. James takes over their computer via the internet, diagnoses the problem using specialty software, and either fixes the problem or sends another team member to perform the repair.

Griffin says these customized approaches – individualized to both the person with autism and the needs of local business, are the best solution for employment: “The traditional job development approach is like retail – looking for jobs that already exist and are sitting on the shelf. It is as if you are saying ‘I want to buy a box of jobs.’ That doesn’t work well. For really effective employment, the jobs will have to be off the grid. It will have to be something that matches the needs and skills each person with autism can bring to the job.”

Thanks in part to the 25 or so consulting projects of Griffin’s company, this customized employment approach is spreading across the country.

James Emmett, a national consultant on autism and employment, says the autism community should listen to Griffin: “Across the country, Cary Griffin has been a leader in, initially, supported employment, and now in customized and self-employment. He understands both the needs of business and of people with significant disabilities. Cary is someone who has always been ahead of the trends and he is part of what is going to be next for people with autism and employment.”

Griffin admits there is still a lot of work to do around autism and employment. He sees vocational rehabilitation agencies across the country struggling to provide successful services to adults with autism and reaching out for options and alternatives. However, serving clients with autism is clearly part of the mandate for all vocational rehabilitation agencies: “The Rehab Act says Voc Rehab is to work with the most significant disabilities. I don’t know how you can leave autism out of that.”

“In Florida we helped Voc Rehab rewrite their self-employment policy to be more inclusive of people with significant disabilities like autism. That’s exciting.”

A previous version of this essay was published as Cary Griffin – Why Job Seeking Won’t Work for Autism [PDF]