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.

Effective Reinforcement Strategies for Children with Autism

by Tranika Jefferson, BCBA, LBA

Many teachers have used “First ___, then ____” statements in planning lessons for teaching with their students with autism. For example:

  • First complete the math problem, then you can use the iPad.
  • First match the objects, then you can listen to music.

As adults, we also use “First ___, then ____” statements in our everyday lives. For example:

  • First exercise, then you can get on social media.
  • First finish your work project, then you can watch your favorite TV show.

Essentially, this method of using “First ___, then ____” statements is a behavioral analytic strategy called the Premack principle. The Premack principle was originated in David Premack’s (1965) research with animals and is defined as “A principle that states that making the opportunity to engage in a high probability behavior contingent on the occurrence of a low frequency behavior will function as reinforcement for the low frequency behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007, p. 271).

The Premack principle can be used to increase desired behaviors by allowing engagement of a preferred or liked activity contingent on them displaying the disliked or not preferred behavior. For a student that spends much more time playing with toy cars than learning site words, a contingency based on the Premack principle might be, “When you state your site words (low frequency behavior), you can play with your toy cars (high probability behavior).”

A child with autism may engage in certain preferred behaviors in high frequency such as:

  • Self-stimulation 
  • Perseverative interest
  • Repetitive behaviors

Therefore, they may disengage in behaviors and activities that may be asked of them. Teachers can be successful in motivating students with autism to attempt tasks that were previously less preferred or difficult if they plan their instruction to follow a disliked activity with a liked activity as the Premack principle states. 

A few tips to successfully use the Premack principle are:

  • Find a “then” (high probability behavior/activity) that is reinforcing for the student. If the high probability behavior/activity does not increase the low-frequency behavior, then find a “then” that does. 
  • Always and immediately (as soon as possible) provide the “then” (high probability behavior/activity). The high probability behavior/activity will be reinforcement for the low probability behavior only if it is followed after the low probability behavior.

References: Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.). Columbus: Pearson.


Tranika Jefferson is a Board Certified Behavior and Licensed Behavior Analyst who holds an advanced degree in Juvenile Forensic Justice. Tranika is a Professional Services  Consultant with Rethink Ed. She delivers on-site and virtual training and coaching/mentoring sessions on Rethink’s web-based platform to teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff, and district leadership. She is also a doctoral candidate in Applied Behavior Analysis.

Using Student Strengths to Create Belonging

By Dr. Sara Totten

In my role as Director of Student Services, I recently observed in a classroom where a student, we’ll call him Lewis, demonstrated minimal eye contact, response (verbal or physical), or social interaction. Upon Lewis’s arrival to the classroom, I observed the educator working with him provide a number of visual, physical, and verbal prompts to guide his morning routine. The educator also performed a number of sensory activities with the student. As the morning progressed, Lewis transitioned to the snack table and remained in his seat for the duration of snack time. I then observed him verbally respond to the educator— the first verbalization of the morning!I

I am embarrassed to say I had at first assumed the student was non-verbal because I hadn’t witnessed any verbal communication during the arrival activities. I realized the implication of my initial assumption that the student did not yet have verbal language. Gut punch!

The experience was a reminder of how easily we, as educators, return to what we think we know. There is a natural desire in all of us to categorize and label; this is often how we make sense of the world. We take from what are often limited exposures or observations to form our schema. But, there are dangers in assumptions, particularly when any of those assumptions create conscious or unconscious limitations for our students and lead to environments where our students may not feel they belong.

All students want and deserve to feel a sense of belonging in the classroom. To truly create a sense of belonging, students need to be seen. In an effort to create opportunities for belonging, educators must take time to get to know student strengths, interests, and preferences in a meaningful way. The more educators can build on student strengths, create student engagement, and hold high expectations for all learners the more students will feel a sense of belonging. To do so, educators might utilize the following:

  • Student interest inventories or strengths-based assessments
  • Time to observe students in their environments, paying attention to communication, play, and overall interactions.
  • Identify Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence (ABC) when students are performing well. Specifically, what about the environment created the behavior you wanted to see, and what about the immediate action after the behavior reinforced it?
  • Increase opportunities for connections (i.e. morning meeting, free or structured play, etc)
  • Explore students’ interests in lesson plans
  • Create multiple ways for students to express ideas
  • Identify and provide avenues and opportunities to meet potential sensory needs

It is vital that educators constantly reflect upon their own assumptions. McCollum (2016) identifies a simple yet effective notion, that of “presum[ing] intellect.” If we assume all students have high capacity and intelligence for learning, we change the assumption that comes with a label. We shift from deficit thinking, to strengths-based thinking. We own that it’s on us as educators to create the environments where all our students can flourish.


Dr. Sara Totten is currently the Director of Student Services for the DeForest Area School District, a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin. She earned her doctorate in educational leadership at Edgewood College in Madison studying principal perspectives of disproportionate placement of African American students in special education programs.

Sara is currently the interim president-elect and has previously served the Social and Awards and Legislative representative roles on the Wisconsin Council for Administrators of Special Services. She also serves on the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance (SAA) and participated on the research and development committee to revise the SAA Evidence-Based Agenda this past year. In addition to her role as director, Sara has taught a number of courses for Lakeland University’s Master Counseling program.