Why Work-Based Learning Experiences Are Important for Youth with Autism

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Work-based learning experiences are a significant predictor of success in adulthood, according to research focused on the transition to adulthood for students with disabilities.

We’ll share what exactly work-based learning experiences are, why they’re important (especially in high school and college), and what you can do next.

The recent estimate of ASD diagnosis is 1 in 58 children (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 208).

The number of adolescents approaching adulthood is also increasing.

Every year, 500,000 teens on the autism spectrum are turning 18 years old.

We also know that adulthood outcomes leave a lot to desire for our adults.

In light of this information, research has focused on preparation in high school.

Some literature has identified significant predictors of positive adulthood outcomes.

One of these predictors is work-based learning experiences.

Work-based learning experiences are planned opportunities for youth and adults with disabilities to gain work experience while they are in school.


Overall, amongst other transition practices, work-based learning experiences are one of few practices that have limited research with people on the autism spectrum.

I’ll give my plug here for more research needed in this area!

And these experiences have been applied across a variety of settings with people with and without disabilities to great success.

And still, I think of work-based learning experiences as a potential pathway for youth on the autism spectrum to gain beneficial work experience before going out on the job market after high school and college.

Having this experience, increases their likelihood of getting and maintaining a job they like in an area they are interested in.

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There are 8 identified work-based learning experiences:

  1. Career exploration,

  2. Job shadowing,

  3. Work sampling,

  4. Internships,

  5. Service learning,

  6. Mentoring,

  7. Apprenticeships, and

  8. Paid employment

Career Exploration

  • Complete career interest questionnaires

  • Learn about jobs and required skills

  • Visit and meet with employers and people employed in that occupation

Job Shadowing

  • Spend extended time in a workplace accompanying an employee in the daily duties of their occupation

Work Sampling

  • Spend meaningful time in a workplace to learn aspects of different job tasks

  • More application of soft skills required in that workplace

Service Learning

  • Hands-on volunteer service to the community

  • Integrates with course objectives from a structured program

  • Learning process organized to provide time for self-reflection and demonstration of knowledge and skills required


  • Formal assignment and arrangement to complete specific tasks in a workplace over a predetermined amount of time

  • Paid or unpaid

Paid Employment

  • May have a job in a company or customized work assignments

  • May be completing course objectives if arranged in connection to a program


  • Formal sanctioned work experiences

  • Learn specific occupational skills related to a standardized trade (e.g., welding, carpentry)


  • Paired with a person as support and guide

  • Can seek career and academic guidance


Look into more of these work-based learning experiences with your student or child on the autism spectrum and determine which one you are interested in trying out.

Think of the work-based learning experiences as a progression from the least intensive time commitment to the most.

If you’re just starting out and don’t know what career interest is a good fit, I’d recommend starting with career exploration activities.

If you’re a little more certain of the route, you may want to pursue internships to gain more experience on the job and connections to others in that field.

What work-based learning experiences have you tried or are interested in trying? Share in our Autism Grown Up community and let’s chat!