Sunday, February 28, 2016

Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment

America prides itself on being way ahead of the rest of the world in its treatment of people with special needs. And sure, the U.S. probably has more accessible buildings, studded curb cuts, and special ed support services per capita than any other place on earth. More therapists, therapy rooms, weighted vests, preferential seating, FM-systems, enlarged screens, sign language interpreters, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, assistive communication, IEP meetings, extra time on tests, offices of disability services, etc., etc.. The U.S. can probably also boast pre-eminence in pro-special needs lip-service--all that public advocacy, all that sensitivity training, all those feel-good articles, and all those Disability Studies programs.

But when it comes to people with High Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, we fall far short in a number of key ways. In particular, we’ve erected a number of uniquely American barriers to productive employment.

First, there’s the uniquely American “college for all” movement, which, combined with our growing obsession with credentialing, means that more jobs and vocational training programs than ever require college degrees—or at least strongly prefer applicants who have such degrees—including jobs and training programs that in other countries require only a high school diploma, if that.

Then there’s college itself. In most other countries, even if you do go to college, you don’t have to take courses outside your area of specialization. As a result, if you’re a biophysics major who can’t write a decent literature or history paper, you can still be confident you’ll get your degree.

But here in the US, getting a decent job means succeeding in a variety of different courses in college, including college English and various other humanities classes. And, for those on the autistic spectrum, such courses are frequently areas of disproportionate weakness.

College-level distribution requirements, in theory, need not be fatal to a bright, moderately autistic student. At Canadian colleges, I’ve been told, there are English courses specifically designed for computer science majors: courses that differ from those for literature majors. And even though American colleges do not tailor their English classes in this way, an American autistic student could, theoretically, satisfy an English requirement with a course in expository essay writing as opposed to one in the 19th century novel.

But current trends in American education, extending now all the way into college, are making the required courses less and less hospitable to autistic kids—even at schools that have a relatively small number of distribution requirements and profess to be autism friendly.

For details on that, stay tuned for Part II.

18 comments:

TerriW said...

Surely if we can have Physics for Poets, we can have Poets for Physicists.

lgm said...



It is possible to use one's SAT, ACT, or AP scores to test out of college english in many colleges if one did not dual enroll senior year.


.

Katharine Beals said...

Interesting. Can you list specific examples of colleges for which this is the case, and what the minimum scores for this are?

Katharine Beals said...

Well put!

Anonymous said...

Of these barriers, I think the thorniest one is the college-for-all trend. Not just because of the breadth requirements, but because college (and especially larger universities) require students to negotiate such a myriad of other personalities, ranging from faculty to other students to staff to financial aid people, etc etc. And because colleges, in the guise of "student life," are so eager to get all the students mixing and appreciating each other and so on. And then there is the growing trend towards internships, where students have to form and sustain relationships that will only end in 3 or 6 months.

lgm said...

Uss a search term such as ' test out college english + college name'....

http://www.english.umd.edu/academics/academicwriting/exemptions/testscore
http://www.buffalo.edu/cas/english/composition/for-students-and-advisors/sat--act--and-ap-exams.html

That doesnt mean other humanities classes will be paper free, especially if ethics or multiculturalism is in the curriculum.

Katharine Beals said...

What's relevant are the score cutoffs, which, using these and other obvious search terms, are rather high--higher than what many autistic spectrum students achieve. Indeed, if a student achieves scores at or about these cutoffs, the English requirements wouldn't be prohibitive in the first place.

In other words, the possibility at some institutions of placing out of some of the problematic humanities courses doesn't address the issue I'm raising here.

lgm said...

You want a degree with no proficiency in communication required?



Katharine Beals said...

Nope.

Anonymous said...

But, for real, the communications demands made on students with autism need to be very different from the ones made on typical students. And that is why I think that a very high level trade school -- equivalent to degree-granting institutions -- is a better fit for students with autism. There, the communcations skills that are expected (and taught, very explicitly) would be entirely discipline-related. I believe this not only because it would allow students with autism to flourish, but also because they need for constant intervention and brokering of the student's academic life would be removed or at least greatly lessened. It's the mark of transition to adulthood to get to the point where this brokering and coaching and "managing" by others can be left behind.

Katharine Beals said...

Absolutely--a very high level trade school would be a much better fit for many on the spectrum. I suspect one could find that sort of thing in other countries, but am not aware of anything like this here in America.

And very good point, too, about the benefits of getting beyond the need for constant brokering and coaching. It stifles the child's independence, and is exhausting for his or her parents.

Auntie Ann said...

Might want to check out coding boot camps. In 12 weeks, they prep students for jobs in programming, and help get them hired.

You'd have to really check them out first, though. They're essentially crash-course tech schools.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, Auntie Ann! The big question I have about these is how much of an emphasis there is on collaborative team work--and how much of a social dimension there is to these camps more generally.

lgm said...

Well, I was asking seriously, but since it makes you uncomfortable to detail your ideas, other than a continual calling for a dumbdown for nonautistic classmates, I will bow out. My son's autistic friend just graduated Ivy League in science and is running his own company. I am very grateful his parents advocated for opportunity for all students in public school.

Katharine Beals said...

"since it makes you uncomfortable to detail your ideas." I detailed them in the post above, and elsewhere. Re-read the post above and see how a follow-up question like "You want a degree with no proficiency in communication required?" does not warrant more than a "Nope."

" other than a continual calling for a dumbdown for non autistic classmates" Re-read the various blog posts on this, and notice how there is not a single call for this.

"My son's autistic friend just graduated Ivy League in science and is running his own company." Congratulations to your son's autistic friend, and to his advocating parents. It's nice to hear about people who have positive suggestions for all students in public schools.

Most autistic students, of course, don't get into the Ivies, and don't run their own companies, no matter how much their parents advocate for them. Some of the reasons for this are discussed in various posts on this blog, and, of course, all over the Internet and beyond.

GoogleMaster said...

I thought I had mentioned coding boot camps in comments on a previous OILF comment, but the only other post I can find that mentions coding boot camps is this one: http://oilf.blogspot.com/2015/11/the-transition-to-college-ii-what-if.html and it's not my comment!

However, my comments on that post are still relevant. To advance as a software engineer, it's not enough to be a great coder. You have to be able to communicate with people who speak business language, both receiving and transmitting. On the other hand, if J just wants to code, there are probably positions for that, as long as he's okay not advancing up the career path.

Re coding boot camps: I swear I thought I posted this before. A younger relative of mine cut their grad schooling (pure science, not CS or engineering) short at a Master's degree, entered and completed a boot camp about a year and a half ago, and had three job offers when they finished the boot camp. They are currently working at a ~50-person company in the Bay Area.

Boot camps aren't cheap, but they are cheaper than college: my relative's was about $18K. They are a lot of work in a short amount of time: 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for 11 weeks. OTOH, the better ones have nearly 100% job placement rates.

GoogleMaster said...

Also in that previous post, I had posted a link to a story about a company that hires people with autism.

DK said...

Hi, I came across this article and have some info to add: To answer an earlier comment, my daughter's school, UIC, requires 2 English courses, both writing courses. They waive the first english class if ACT is 27+ in English. The 2nd course is described as "Writing for Inquiry" and is described as an independent research-based course with collaboration for peer-reviewing and possibly for research. A point worth noting is that there are sections covering a huge range of topics. There is even one called "The Scope and Impact of Mathematics." For my daughter with mild Asperger's, writing a research paper on a topic that she is interested in is not a challenge at all. She can write research papers all day long because she is not trying to interpret someone's ambiguity and evaluate it as a reading class would require. So, there are schools out there with such offerings!

Additionally, as a software developer and very left-brained person, I understand the wish to sit in my corner and code. That being said, there's a big difference between 1)meeting/communicating with users in order to understand their requests/problems and relay the features of your programs and 2)sitting around discussing ideas/goals/mission statements etc. I can collaborate on technical details all day long. Neurotypical people tend to mistake lack of small-talk and missing of social cues as an indicator of poor communication skills. I can communicate very well about the things in which I am knowledgeable and interested :)