The Transition Process for Students with Autism in Career and Technical Education: Does It Happen?

By Penn State College of Education’s Jennifer Nicholas, Debra Herman,  and Marybeth Morrison.

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can have significant difficulties transitioning from secondary education to postsecondary training or suitable employment. Figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that prevalence rates continue to rise. Currently, 1 in 50 children between the ages of 6 and 17 has an ASD (Blumberg et al., 2013).  The authors found limited literature on employment and postsecondary attainment for this population. They also surveyed career and technical directors in a 30-county area within their state concerning individuals they served with an ASD in the past five years. Addressing the issues related to transition to employment and postsecondary training for this population is crucial for students, families, educators, service providers, and policy makers.

Despite 38 years of legislative advancement, students with disabilities lag significantly behind their nondisabled peers in postsecondary attainment and employment (Shattuck et al., 2013). United States Department of Labor statistics from June of 2013 indicate 20.2% of individuals with disabilities were in the labor force compared to 69.7% of those without disabilities. For
this same time period, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities doubled that of those without: 14.2% v 7.6%. Alarmed by these figures and rising autism prevalence rates, we reviewed the literature further.

According to a national study (Shattuck et al., 2013), one in three adults with autism had neither paid work experience nor postsecondary or technical training up to seven years after high school. These researchers also found that individuals with ASD were more likely to be unemployed or not attending postsecondary training than individuals from other disability categories, with the exception of postsecondary participation of individuals with intellectual disabilities. In this category, those with ASD fared better. The rates for participation in either postsecondary training or work remained at 50% non-participation for at least two years beyond high school. This would indicate problems in the process for moving from high school to work or training.

Additional researchers found poor post-school outcomes for individuals with ASD. Ballaban-Gil, Rapin, Tuchman, and Shinnar (1996) studied 45 adults with ASD. In their research, 27% had some type of work activity of which approximately half were competitively employed. The other half attended some form of supported or sheltered workshop. The remainder had no employment. Researchers found those employed to be poorly paid. These findings are similar to studies by Eaves and Ho (2008) and Taylor and Seltzer (2011), both of which revealed meager rates of employment for those with ASD. Taylor and Seltzer (2011), also found young adults with ASD and no intellectual disability were three times more likely to have no daytime activities when compared with those adults with ASD and intellectual disabilities.

The current system appears ill-equipped to successfully transition adults with ASD in light of national demographic and policy changes. With 1 in 50 children between the ages of 6 and 17 identified as autistic (Blumberg et al., 2013), we anticipate increasing needs in assisting people with autism entering the workforce. Intensifying this need, movement is underway to close sheltered facilities, stating they are in violation under Title II of the ADA and the integration regulation (Diament, 2012). Vermont is closing their sheltered facilities (Sulewski, 2007), while Rhode Island (Arditi, 2013) is taking steps toward closure. With sheltered workshops dismantling as rates of autism increase, transition to integrated work or training for this population will be challenging.

All these concerns caused us to explore what is happening in high-school career and technical education for students with ASD. By law, special education students must have access to the full range of curricula (Gray, 2004; Johnson, Emanuel, Mack, Stodden, & Luecking, 2002), and, according to the US Department Of Education (2002), all high school students need a strong foundation in academic and occupational skills. Yet throughout this literature review, no articles mentioned students with ASD attending career and technical education (CTE) even though literature supports this as a viable option for students with disabilities (Harvey, 2002).

As Shattuck et al. (2013) assert, further research is necessary to understand how transition planning before high-school exit can facilitate better connections to productive postsecondary activities. More research is needed on the participation of individuals with an ASD in career and technical education, particularly as it relates to work experience placements. Participation in work experiences during high school is linked with improved employment outcomes (Benz, Yovanoff, & Doren, 1997; Fraker et al., 2012). Career and technical programs, such as cooperative education, which combines academic and vocational training highly correlate with attainment of full-time employment upon graduation (Shandra & Hogan, 2008). In this study, our goal was to explore the participation of students with ASD in career and technical schools in our region to ascertain if successful post-school outcomes were achieved.

Theoretical Framework

Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of human development (1979) offers a contextual model to understand multiple interrelated levels of transition for a person with ASD. Of particular interest is the mesosystem; where different variables related to home, school, and employment interact. For students with ASD, interaction between these environments has critical impact on transition success because they must carefully navigate complex systems components to attain employability or training. Secondary school staff, local employers, job-assistance programs, and postsecondary personnel are all part of this system. A lack of systemic cohesiveness can impede progress toward achieving gainful employment, independence, and postsecondary participation. Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model focuses on individual needs while recognizing the entire system in which people grow. Since the transition process mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2004) requires a results-oriente process for individuals with disabilities, and this requires working across multiple systems, we believe that Bronfrenbrenner’s model provides the best theoretical framework for transition in this context.

Research Objective and Questions

Our research goal was to examine outcomes for students with an ASD in CTE with regard to work-based experience, employment, and postsecondary training over a 5- year period. In conducting this survey we contacted vocational directors in our region and asked the following questions:

  1. In the last 5 years, how many students on the autism spectrum attended your career and technical school?
  2. Please list the career and technical programs these students attended.
  3. How many of these students participated in a work-based experience whileattending your career and technical school?
  4. How many of these students completed their career and technical program?
  5. How many of these students have acquired and maintained gainful employment intheir vocational area or a related field?
  6. How many of these students continued on to postsecondary education?
  7. Please add any comments regarding students on the autism spectrum who arecurrently attending or who have attended your CTE school within the last five years.Methodology/ProceduresWe reviewed the literature using the following key search terms: transition,

transition and autism, employment and autism, vocational education and autism, career and technical education and autism, postsecondary education and autism, work and autism, prevalence and autism, and training and autism. We used the following search engines: Google Scholar, Google, Lexus-Nexus, and the CAT, which contains multiple journals. The results yielded zero articles specifically linking autism with career and technical education. Given this gap, we relied instead on broader scholarship regarding the school-to-work transition of students with autism to develop our survey questions.

We created the 7-item survey using Qualtrics, a secure online software for administering and analyzing electronic surveys. Survey participants represented 36 career and technical schools, with multiple sending schools, from our region. Each recipient of the survey was a vocational director, a cohort we currently service for professional development and teacher certification. The survey used a forced choice scale of 0-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10 or above for questions 1 and 3-6. An introductory message and four reminders were sent during a three-week period. Each contained a unique electronic link to the survey. Responses were anonymous. Out of 36 possible responses, 16 were returned. Five contained no data. A 44% response rate was achieved with 30% usable data.


Work-based experience. The majority of respondents (73%) reported no students with ASD participated in work-based experiences. The remaining 27% reported that only 1-3 of these students had work experiences. One survey respondent shared an incident highlighting an obstacle to work-based participation: “We had one student with autism on a cooperative education experience. We had to bring him back for additional training. He had difficulty following verbal directions and following procedure.”

Attendance and completion rates. Responses indicated the participation of students with ASD throughout the offerings of CTE programs. Their completion in these programs varied in success. For 30% of respondents, none with ASD completed their CTE program. An additional 30% reported that 1-3 students completed their program, while only one respondent each reported that 4-6 and 7-9 students were completers. Only 20% reported program completion of more than 10 students. One respondent commented the number of students with ASD in attendance is likely underestimated: “Those with mild affliction may not have IEPs and would not be noted in any information I receive upon enrollment in my programs.” We found this comment interesting in light of Taylor and Seltzer’s (2011) findings about individuals with ASD and no intellectual disability. It may indicate this group is not getting adequate supports because they do not qualify for academic services under IDEA.

Postsecondary education and gainful employment. Few students with ASD were reported as having successful employment in their vocational area after leaving the career and technical school. Of respondents, 36% reported no students with ASD had reached this milestone while the remaining 64% said that only 1-3 had done so. One respondent reflected on success in this area:

“We have had 16 students on the autism spectrum in the last 5 years; we currently have 8 students. Three… who have graduated have gone on to complete a postsecondary program and two are gainfully employed in their area of study. I feel the reason for student success is that for the first student on the spectrum that attended here… we started the year with a meeting with staff from the district, followed by training sessions for our staff. I also have a psychologist who works with teachers… so that we can meet those students’ needs.”

Limitations and Further Research

The size of our study, both geographically and in the number of responses, limits the generalizability of findings. The ability of the vocational directors to supply accurate information is also a limitation. While we recognize the small scale of this study, we believe that it adds a snapshot of data that was not part of the current picture for individuals with ASD.

The researchers indicate that successful transition of individuals with ASD requires a systems approach centered on the individual (Mawhood & Howlin, 1999; Wareham & Sonne, 2008). However, numerous studies indicate this is not happening (Cameto, Levine, & Wagner, 2004; Eaves & Ho, 2008; O’Brien & Daggett, 2006; Taylor & Seltzer, 2011; Schall , Cortijo-Doval, Targett, & Wehman, 2006). This oversight contributes to individuals with ASD being less likely to attain employment and postsecondary success. In our survey results, we found it illuminating that the school articulating success used a cross-disciplinary approach reflecting the ecological model in Bronfrenbrenner, (1979). Further research is needed to specify the coordination of services that would improve outcomes for all employable adults with ASD on a larger scale.

This research coincides with a time of unprecedented change in understanding, defining, and raising awareness about autism globally. Only recently did the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders eliminate the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome in favor of the broader “autism spectrum disorder” (Satel, 2013). This raises the question of whether students formerly diagnosed with a ‘milder form’ of autism might be those same students that Taylor and Seltzer (2011) identify as those without an intellectual disability from their study.

As we better understand the full range of students with this identification, more attention needs to be placed on recruitment, orientation, retention, and postsecondary outcomes of students with ASD in career and technical education. Much attention has been given to autism, but that attention and associated funds have predominantly benefitted understanding the basic science and earliest stages of the disorder (Singh, Illes, Lazzeroni, & Hallmayer, 2009). As a singular focus, this perspective neglects the present dilemma of meeting the needs of students with ASD entering the workforce and working- age adults with ASD. This must include those with no intellectual disability. The movement to close sheltered workshops, coupled with the increase in identification of children with ASD (Blumberg et al., 2013), supports a need for continued research as we anticipate postsecondary transitions for the youngest generation, and maybe, with shelter closures, the older ones as well.


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