Tips for Creating Employability Opportunities for Students with Neurodiverse Conditions

by John Peterson

Students with neurodiverse conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, ADHD and social anxiety have tremendous strengths that could benefit any employer. As educators, our end goal for ALL students includes having them learn, practice, and model employability skills. We also want employers and coworkers to see our students with neurodiverse conditions as capable young adults with their own unique strengths first, and as individuals who may benefit from accommodation and support second. 

What has been amazing to see from an educational leadership role is how much employers benefit from employing my students with neurodiversity and how their perceptions of what these students can and cannot do changes significantly over time. In short, employers typically stop seeing these young adults as having a disability and start focusing on their other characteristics like their honesty, humility, work ethic, supportiveness, and caring.

This article will cover recommendations for school districts to consider when it comes to supporting students with neurodiversity.

Communicating the Benefits

When setting up employment and volunteer opportunities for students who are neurodiverse, it’s a good idea to set and reinforce expectations with employers ahead of time. To help employers see students as young adults with many strengths, educational leaders can reach out to their local area service clubs (like the Optimists Club, Rotary Club, Lions Club, or the Chamber of Commerce). Local business leaders are members of these organizations, which are looking to do good in their community. They thrive on connections with other organizations whose mission is to do the same – like our school districts. Connect with these organizations and present information about the goals for your students at one of their meetings. When doing so, you can share the following talking points with potential employers regarding employing neurodiverse individuals and individuals with disabilities:

  • Adults and young adults do NOT want to be known as disabled OR for others to see them as disabled; rather, they want to be known as abled – a coworker who has strengths and wants to contribute to the team.
  • When employers hire these students, the morale of the workplace increases because:
    • Coworkers see how hard our students work and what strengths they bring to the workplace, and they often want to emulate these characteristics themselves.
    • When coworkers see how little our students complain while overcoming the obstacles in their lives, it provides them with the motivation to improve their own outlook.
  • Coworkers often serve as mentors to our students, giving them added value and leadership experience as an employee through guiding someone new to the organization who is learning the company’s expectations.
  • Employers gain the benefit of watching our students’ skills grow while having these same skills benefit their organization; in short, everybody wins.

If employers have this information ahead of time, then the choice to employ our students who have barriers in their learning, behavior, or abilities becomes an easy one. Employers need to understand that this is NOT charity work on their behalf and that our students do NOT need pity or sympathy. Rather, our students need mentors and opportunities: our local businesses can supply these and so much more.

Promoting Employability Skills at School

We can also strengthen our students’ employability skills during the school day. One way is by emphasizing to all students that going to school and attending classes is their full-time job. You could even post these expectations for all students in every classroom.  You should also align these expectations to the schools’ Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) school-wide system.

These expectations might include:

  • Showing up to class on time
  • Following the school’s dress code, including:
    • Wearing clean clothes.
    • Wearing appropriate clothes.
    • Avoiding specific items.
  • Following proper hygiene etiquette .
  • Showing respect to and having proper social behaviors with the adults they interact with.
  • Giving your best attitude and effort each day.

Not only should you promote these expectations, but also remind all students of the connection between these behaviors and employability skills that they will need to consistently demonstrate for future employment.

You can also prepare students with neurodiverse conditions to transition into the workplace by conducting mock interviews and having them construct resumes. In mock interviews students who are neurodiverse can practice social expectations that are required during a job interview and receive constructive feedback from a variety of adults on what they did well and what they could improve. Educator leaders can either have other educators help in these mock interviews or invite community members and business representatives in to assist in this process.

The stage in the hiring process where students with autism and other neurodiverse students get tripped up is often during the interview. Students may struggle with the give and take of a social exchange, may not always pick up on social cues, and can encounter challenges in fully sharing all of their talents and strengths. Students who are neurodiverse need to practice these skills and to fully understand the expected behaviors that employers are wanting and needing to see during the interview process.


John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin.  and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.

Taking Parent Fear and Anxiety out of the Evaluation and IEP Process

by John Peterson

Talking with numerous educators over the years, I have heard many colleagues express significant concern regarding how anxiety- and fear-provoking the initial special education evaluation and IEP development process can be for parents and caregivers, especially when the area of autism is being considered. Instead of focusing on the hope that comes with the collaboration between home and school and improving specific communicative skills, educators often feel like they are walking on eggshells around parents and caregivers when it comes to the initial evaluation process and IEP development for autism.

According to Rethink Ed, even though students with autism make up only 9% of all students with disabilities, they account for 25% of all due process hearings in special education. With this statistic in mind, it is no wonder that educators run into parents and caregivers who are experiencing a variety of negative emotions when they first hear the word autism. In some cases, the emotions are so intense that I’ve even heard educators question, “Should I even bring up the ‘A-word’ to the parents?”

What is amazing is the stark contrast in how educators view these same students being evaluated for autism. Educators see:

  • Strengths that the students possess and how the IEP team can build upon these strengths
  • Unlocked potential that they cannot wait to tap in to
  • And, most of all, hope for a promising future

So as educational leaders, how can we flip the script and take parents’ and caregivers’ focus away from fear and anxiety and guide them towards strengths, untapped potential, and hope for a promising future? Simply put, the answer lies within how we assess our students with autism and how we interact with their families throughout the evaluation and IEP process.

Avoid Subjectivity

When parents and caregivers are first learning about autism or even hear an educator refer to autism, they may see their child in a much different light than other members of the IEP team. The key in the evaluation process for educators is to take the subjectivity out of the eligibility determination and take the focus off the differences in perception between home and school. If the differences between home and school become the focus, the natural result more often than not is an adversarial relationship. In other words, if the parents emotions are already running high and they are not 100% trusting the educators evaluating their child, then any differences in perception of their child will only exacerbate the relationship between home and school.

Instead of falling into this trap of perceptions, educators should focus on providing objective data that compares the student with autism to his or her same age peers. Rating scales and models such as Social Communication Emotional Regulation Transactional Supports (SCERTS) yield objective data that compare students’ communicative skills to those of other students their age. This takes the subjectivity out of the conversation and supplies parents and guardians with a better understanding of what communicative strengths their child has and what areas call for specially-designed instruction. This shift naturally takes IEP teams away from the “us versus them” mentality and places the focus on skill development and goal attainment.

Communication is Key

Not only should educators focus on objective rating scales and data to compare students to their peers, but educators should also open the lines of communication with parents at the beginning of the evaluation process and continue that communication all the way through the initial IEP meeting. It often helps to know the “why” behind parents’ and caregivers’ reservations and concerns. Sometimes a listening and available ear can go a long way in reducing these concerns. On a regular basis, it also strengthens the relationship between home and school.

Strategies to help improve communication between home and school while navigating the initial evaluation for autism could include:

  1. Asking parents and caregivers if you could either stop by their home or meet them for coffee at a local cafe – this shows that their concerns matter to you and that you are willing to meet them in a location that they are comfortable with to hear about them.
  2. Offering to connect the parents and caregivers to other parents and caregivers who have gone through the initial evaluation process for autism (make sure you obtain consent of the other family before offering this up) – this shows that you are acknowledging the challenges and the variety of emotions that they are experiencing, and that they are not alone in this journey.
  3. Giving parents and caregivers an opportunity to talk with both general and special education teachers about their expectations for a student who receives special education services in the area of autism – this shows parents and caregivers that educators focus more on a student’s disability area needs and goals and NOT on labels.
  4. Remind parents and caregivers that the emotions that they are experiencing are common and that it may be beneficial to bring in either a family friend and/or parent advocate to help them separate the emotions from the issues – this shows that you are willing to work with them no matter who is at the table.
  5. Encourage the parents and caregivers to meet with the IEP team after three or four weeks of services being delivered – this shows parents that you value their feedback and are open to making adjustments to programming based on this feedback.

What is a common theme throughout all of the aforementioned recommendations is that parents and caregivers see you and the IEP team members as having a vested interest in the relationship and wanting to work with them for the benefit of their child. In the end, parents and caregivers want to know that their child is receiving the assistance that they need and are being supported by educators who truly care for them. Hopefully these recommendations and talking points help your IEP teams reduce fear and anxiety and create a strong foundation for your relationship with them for years to come.


John Peterson serves as the Director of Special Education for the Hamilton School District in Sussex, Wisconsin and has served as a special education administrator for a total of 15 years. John has previously served as the president of the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS) and has been in leadership roles on their board of directors since 2006. John also helps mentor aspiring special education administrators by serving as a University Supervisor for Cardinal Stritch University (Milwaukee, WI) and has presented on a variety of special education-related topics at both state and national conferences.


Rethink Ed’s Skills Success platform supports educators in developing and delivering quality IEPs, addressing many of the instructional challenges currently present in special education including. Find out more.