UCLA College to Career Plans to Increase Employer Awareness and Knowledge of Autistic Individuals’ Strengths in the workplace

There will be an estimated 700,000 autistic adults aging into adulthood over the next 10 years. Yet, a staggering 80% of autistic adults are unemployed. UCLA College to Career was developed to address the challenges faced by autistic young adults in their transition from college to career.

From an initial meeting in 2014 between UCLA researchers and staff and our founding supporters Chau Le and John Klemm, an idea was discussed on how UCLA could create an environment to better support autistic young adults moving from college into their professional lives. What emerged from these discussions was an innovative set of initiatives developed by UCLA’s Dr. Elizabeth Laugeson and Dr. Amanda Gulsrud, to provide training and support undergraduate and graduate autistic students as they pursue and enter the workforce. College to Career is creating a scalable solution to employment barriers faced by autistic individuals to serve as a model of higher education training for colleges across the country.

With funding from Autism Speaks, the UCLA team is currently examining the effectiveness of the first component of the broader College to Career initiative, the PEERSâ for Careers training program, a 20-week employment-related social skills intervention. The PEERSâ for Careers program uses evidence-based teaching methods for autistic individuals to promote skills ranging from interviewing to workplace socializing. This research study is working with its fourth and final cohort of participants. Across the entire study to date, 107 autistic young adults have enrolled, with about 60% of those who have completed the 20-week program reporting being engaged in employment-related experiences (e.g., internship, volunteer, paid employment) during the follow-up phase after the 20-week program.

Nick, a participant in an early cohort was not only able to go on his first ever job interview, but also secured his first internship at ShemeshFarms, a local farm social enterprise and small business, where he co-authored and collaborated on the publication of their first cookbook, among other roles. Nick shares, “With the skills I’ve learned and the help from my career coach I have had two job interviews. The first job interview, I was nervous but I did the job interview and I was very proud of myself. The second job interview, I got my first internship. There I’ve learned so much about how a small business grows. I’m more excited about this internship and getting a job in the future.”

This program has been made possible by the support of our generous donors, including Northwestern Mutual, Autism Speaks, the Max Factor Family Foundation, and the tireless work of the Advisory Committee. However, College to Career is excited to grow into other initiatives, and have seen the need for direct engagement not only with autistic individuals, but also with employers and professional networks. By partnering with numerous employers, College to Career hopes to increase employer awareness of autistic individuals’ strengths in the workplace and employer knowledge on how to maximize this amazing talent pool. In June 2021, members Chau Le, John Klemm, Walt and Priscila Kasha, Lily Chau, and Yanning Zuo raised over $25K to support the College to Career program in the first steps of this employer initiative. These funds were instrumental in enabling our team to start building networks of connections, with professionals and employers in diverse fields, based on participants’ interests, who are supportive of our mission. From these networks, the College to Career team has created a directory of individuals and organizations who are providing support to our PEERSâ for Careers program participants through informational interviews and/or internship/employment opportunities. With the funding support generated last summer and through the efforts of our UCLA Employment Team, this directory now includes over 180 community partners and over 110 internship/employment opportunities – a feat that has already provided countless networking and employment opportunities to our young adults. Conversations are already occurring with interested employers regarding next steps and employment partnerships with the College to Career program.

In the coming year, not only do we plan to continually expand and strengthen these employer relationships, the College to Career team intends to collaborate with employers to determine their needs in order to inform the development of specific trainings and resources related to employing individuals on the autism spectrum. We plan to pilot this employer-facing curriculum to create an even more holistic approach to the employment-related experiences of both the participants and the employers. Private philanthropy is imperative to our ability to expand this program beyond what current research funding supports and move forward in this work of promoting autistic students’ success in employment. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Christopher Carbado, Director of Development for UCLA Health Sciences at ccarbado@mednet.ucla.edu.