Solving the work puzzle

Published 10:50 pm Saturday, January 7, 2012

Imagine living in a society in which the unemployment rate hovered near 67 percent. Imagine that even if you could get a job in that sort of climate, you could expect to earn less than $9 per hour and work only about 23 hours per week.

For young adults with autism, those numbers, derived from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2009 Longitudinal Transition Study, are real. The rate of employment, the average pay and the average hours worked by people with disabilities are all generally lower than those of Americans without disabilities. But the same numbers for people whose disability is autism are far worse.

The facts are dispiriting for the growing number of people in families with autistic children. But there are some encouraging signs. Two five-year national research projects into the problem started up in 2008, including one based at Virginia Commonwealth University aimed at identifying successful school-to-work techniques for individuals with autism. And some companies around the nation, including Walgreens, have had success integrating autism sufferers into their workforces, especially at their distribution centers.

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Still, there is a long way to go. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control estimated the prevalence for the autism diagnosis among 8-year-olds in the United States at 1 in 110. Extrapolating, the Autism Society of America estimates that between 1 and 1.5 million people around the nation have the disability. That translates into a huge number of adults who are completely or mostly dependent on the government or family members for support throughout their adult lives.

With a new focus on the problem, specialized schools such as Suffolk’s River’s Bend Academy have stepped in to help equip those who suffer from autism for a level of independence as adults that they might otherwise never have experienced. A small group of students from that school recently has been involved in a program with the Isle of Wight County Animal Shelter, where they learn about helping to take care of the dogs and cats that are brought to that facility.

The 13- to 16-year-olds who participate in the program visit the shelter for an hour or two, three times a week. They learn how to clean, walk the dogs and socialize the animals, and they learn to follow directions and complete tasks. Perhaps most important, they learn to have confidence in themselves and to connect with other people.

Work helps make life meaningful. Programs like the one at River’s Bend can help put meaningful work within reach of many who otherwise would have had little chance at it. There’s a lot to honor in such an endeavor.