How Student Strengths Can Help Close the Autism Employment Gap

Twelve years ago, Stephen Shore was visiting Urakawa, a small town in Japan, where he met the mother of a teenage boy with autism. The boy had limited verbal skills, and his mother was worried about what kind of work he might find as an adult.

Shore, an adjunct professor in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, asked her the same question he always asks parents of children with autism: What is it your child likes to do?

The mother said her son liked to spend time in the basement sticking his finger under the faucet and spraying water at high pressure. There could be a number of sensory reasons why the boy enjoyed this, Shore said, including the feeling of pressure on his thumb, the joy of watching water arc across the room, or the sound of water splashing against the wall.

“And that is a gift because it tells us, ‘OK, now we know what he’s interested in: spraying water at high pressure,’” he said. “So that means considering jobs that might involve spraying water at high pressure.”

Focusing on a young person’s interests as a clue to career happiness seems like a given. When a girl shows an interest in animals, she might be encouraged to consider a future career in veterinary sciences. When a boy exhibits an interest in drawing, he may be invited to sign up for art classes. And yet, when children with autism show an interest in a subject, there can be a stigma – many times leading to their interest being labeled “restrictive” or “obsessive.”

“It’s important not to pathologize these strengths,” said Kristie Patten Koenig, an associate professor and department chair for NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy.

As an example, Koenig said her son, who does not have autism, used to talk a lot about baseball statistics and history, “but we don’t ascribe any weakness to that. We don’t say he’s obsessed or has a ‘restricted interest.’ But for kids who are on the autism spectrum, many people view it as more of a pathology or a deficit versus seeing the potential there, because of the depth of the interest.”

She said removing the pathology from these interests not only eliminates a negative stigma but allows members of the autism community to thrive in situations that capitalize on their strengths. They can be helped mentally and socially, but also occupationally.

Read the full article on our online program OT@NYU‘s blog.