The challenges in finding and keeping employment for young adults on the autism spectrum are well documented, with studies indicating that 75 to 85 percent are unemployed . However, there are no employment statistics for adults with NVLD, although according to Yvonna Fast, author of the book Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-verbal Learning Disability, a high percentage are also thought to be unemployed or underemployed. Despite the increasing availability of job coaching and independent living services for young adults on the autism spectrum, the NVLD population lacks access to similar services, despite the many challenges they face. Deficits in visual spatial processing and executive functioning can cause seemingly mundane work tasks, such as organizing files, prioritizing, and filling out forms, to be excessively onerous, while managing nonverbal communication from employers and colleagues can also be challenging. More must be done, starting at the college and graduate school levels, to prepare adults with NVLD for the demands of the workforce.
Although the academic challenges faced by children with NVLD have become increasingly well-documented, less research has been done regarding the specific needs of young adults as they enter the workforce. To address this, it is important to start by examining the roles of academic coaches and educational support staff at the college and graduate school levels. Many students with NVLD would be best helped by internships and simulated workplace experiences, as well as by direct feedback about the interpretation of body language and the management of different organizational tasks that require strong executive functioning. If these skills are reinforced during high school and higher education, students with NVLD are much more likely to find professional success. Programs such as “Emerging Leaders” of the Viscardi Center already offer a needed service in providing internships and professional guidance and supports for college students with disabilities as they prepare for the workforce, but more is needed to focus on the specific needs of young adults with NVLD.
College and graduate school students with NVLD may have developed a specific set of academic skills for compensating for their deficits and utilizing their strengths, such as selecting classes that utilize their vocabulary and strong written memory, or walking around campus a few times to become familiar with where their classes are located, but an employment context often requires multiple transitions between tasks and the ability to read body language from employers, clients, and colleagues in a fast-pace workplace environment. A coach at the college or graduate school level who specifically understands how these tasks may be challenging for young adults with NVLD, as well as how they may be able to compensate for their deficits by using their verbal memory and writing skills, can be an essential asset in helping this young adult to prepare for future employment.
While interviewing Marcia Scheiner, Founder and President of the Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership (ASTEP) in her office last June, she emphasized that ASTEP also educates companies regarding the nature of Asperger Syndrome and benefits of employing someone with this diagnosis (M. Scheiner, personal communication, June 20, 2016). The same should be done for individuals with NVLD, who are not only frequently misunderstood, but also often bring unique assets to an employer, such as an advanced vocabulary, a strong verbal memory, and a tenacity developed from years of overcoming obstacles.
It is important to emphasize that young adults with NVLD entering the workforce also benefit from supporting one another, specifically as they face challenges not only related to the practical aspects of their jobs, but also the decisions about when, how, and whether to self-disclose. Managing a neurological learning difference while employed is a stressor in and of itself, but the anxiety associated with self-disclosure also involves concerns regarding job security and potential judgement by employers and colleagues. Speaking with others in a confidential group setting about how to manage this challenge can provide some relief. In addition, young adults with NVLD need support not only in vocalizing their challenges, but also in reminding themselves of what they specifically offer to employers and the world around them, and sometimes, other young adults with NVLD are in the best position to do this.
Although the needs of young Adults with NVLD are distinct from those on the autism spectrum, there are nevertheless many opportunities for both populations to work together. Ms. Scheiner also empathized that many young adults with NVLD could benefit from programs similar to ASTEP’s, as their challenges often overlap with those of the Asperger’s population. (M. Scheiner, Personal Communication, June 20, 2016). It is clear that there are significant commonalities in the needs of both populations, and it may also be the case that individuals from both groups may be able to support one another at times with their respective strengths and weaknesses, but it is also important to provide a specific space for young adults with NVLD to receive the individual support they need.
In preparing students with NVLD for the workforce, coaches and educational professionals must keep in mind that every person with NVLD is unique, but many are also are likely to benefit from practicing the skills necessary for achieving professional success. Unfortunately, job readiness services have not focused exclusively on the needs of this population.