Adults with autism look for job opportunities, activities

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By Gaby Izarra

Mayra Ron calls them the "forgotten ones" because she says some people feel they are too old to be of concern in our society.

Autistic adults may have fewer options once they leave high school. Employment depends on the skills of the individuals, and the preparation they have for independent activities, said Arthur Wallen, associate director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities in Gainesville.

When autistic children reach their high school years, the focus of parents and teachers often becomes what these students are going to do after graduation. Although things have improved in the last 10 years regarding employment outcomes for autistic adults, the number of those employed is still low, Wallen said.

Autism is a disability that affects the normal functions of the brain dealing with social interaction and communication skills. About 1.5 million people in the United States have autism, according to the center at the University of Florida. There is a spectrum of autistic disorders, and the severity of symptoms varies.

Ron had a vision to provide a solution for her 27-year-old son, Christian Early, and other autistic adults who have left the education system and are facing this blank canvas.

"I kept thinking, 'What's he going to do the rest of his life?'" Ron said.

She was thrilled when she discovered that Early had a special interest in art and painting at the age of 17. It was his possibility for employment.

Ron started a nonprofit organization called Art Possibilities that intends to give autistic adults a place to go to develop necessary life, social and job skills through an art-based curriculum. But with a lack of funds, Art Possibilities has never been able to make the difference she anticipated.

"I guess it's fair to say that most families and most individuals are just scratching the surface on finding work circumstances that accommodate their disability," Wallen said. "They have to paint this canvas that is the adult life."

The kinds of jobs available to adults with autism greatly depend on individual strengths and weaknesses. Autistic adults who are visual thinkers may gravitate toward a job like a video game designer, a computer programmer or a commercial artist, according to the Autism Research Institute website. Jobs like those don't rely on fast information processing or a heavily functioning short-term memory.

Nonvisual thinkers, those who often work better with numbers, facts and music, might perform well as accountants, bank tellers or freelance journalists, according to Autism Research Institute. These are fact-based professions that involve long-term memory skills.

Autistic adults who are less independent, more nonverbal or have weaker verbal skills can succeed in jobs involving plants, libraries, the fast-food industry or custodial work.

Regardless of the work, a job for an autistic adult should have a set goal and rely on short-term memory skills, according to the institute.

As a sales associate in a Walmart store, Early got distracted by the television and forgot his tasks, Ron said. There aren't many options for those individuals who are not employed, and families of autistic adults sometimes have trouble placing them.

"I think families are mostly overwrought when they look at the prospects of their adult child needing as much or more help as they did when they were much younger children," Wallen said.

Families with autistic children generally have to begin earlier than when the child reaches 16 to prepare him or her for a job and independent life. A smooth school-to-adult-life transition is critical to success in the job market, Wallen said.

Early lives with his mom in her home in Pembroke Pines, Fla., where he spends his days in his studio. Ron cares for him daily. His paintings are sold on the Art Possibilities website.

Art Possibilities still has two students, but a lack of funds has prevented Ron from achieving her initial vision – a real center where autistic adults can go daily to learn. But she still has hope, she said.