According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children (or 14.7 per 1,000 eight-year-olds) in the United States has been identified with autism spectrum disorder. And each year more than 50,000 individuals with autism graduate from high schools across the country and 80 percent of these individuals remain unemployed seven years after they graduate, according to Autism Speaks, an advocacy group.

If we could place one third of these 50,000 students in meaningful employment during that seven-year period after graduation, we could successfully decrease the amount of taxpayer’s dollars spent ($265 billion in 2015) on state and federal benefits, according to Autism Speaks.

The solution is to bring back middle- and high-school vocational training centers and teach our youth with autism skills sets, such as horticulture, bakery, medical data coding, car detailing, gardening and lawn care. Along with the kiddos we lose to the gangs and then the prison system annually, we would significantly reduce cradle-to-grave Social Security payouts, and at the same time this subgroup actually would be paying taxes rather than the opposite.

Youths with autism are graduating from high school at 18 or 22 years of age with no skill set. Many don’t even have an email account; you can’t have a job if you don’t have email.

In 2000 when I first began teaching students with autism in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Inclusion Movement was in full swing. That meant our students with autism were either fully included in a general education classroom with their peers or they were in a special day class and were mainstreamed into a general education classroom with their typical peers for whatever percentage of the school day that their individual education plan team agreed was appropriate for the student.

Consequently, our students with moderate to severe autism were no longer exposed to vocational skill sets that could potentially equate to a job when they graduated. So, while full inclusion proved beneficial in many areas, such as social and emotional ones, it left vocational skills out of the equation. We took two steps forward but three steps back in that our students with moderate to severe disabilities were biding time in a general education classroom but not graduating with skills necessary to get and keep a job. We must ask ourselves: in retrospect, did we truly serve these individuals?

The Autism Works Now program that I lead, along with director Susan Osborne, is teaching pre-employment skills needed to land and keep a job and addresses this core deficit. Candidates with autism and related differences meet once a week in a facilitated workshop to not only build their resumes, learn how to talk to co-workers on the job, research a job, get an interview for a job and follow up after the interview but also how to maneuver their way around Google docs, use Google maps to get to and from a job interview and most important of all, increase their self-confidence and understanding of their rightful place in the community. 

It would be so helpful I we could get small and mid-sized businesses in the San Fernando Valley area – and kudos to Ralphs and Traders Joe’s, which have been employing our youth for more than 10 years – to offer paid internships and jobs to autistic youths. It also would be helpful to get the federal government on board with restructuring the tax credit incentives so that small and mid-sized businesses would benefit from hiring employees with disabilities. If we could do that, and bring back vocational centers, we might be able to change the way that autism is viewed in this country at the same time we increase their quality of life and decrease the federal and state hand-out money.

A congratulatory shout-out to our own Valley Industry and Commerce Association member, William Pond, field representative for Assembly Member Raul Bocanegra, who just hired Luke Guastaferro, an Autism Works Now candidate who has a bachelor’s degree from California State University – Northridge in city planning, in an intern position at the San Fernando District 39 Office.

Who doesn’t want to wake up and have a place to go each day? No one. Not me and not you, and not individuals with autism, or any disability. We need to all be a part of the solution and ensure that our youths’ lives are full and meaningful, and that they have the opportunity to be vital contributors to our community. We need to help these individuals take their seat at the table.

Joanne Lara is executive director of Autism Works Now in Woodland Hills and is the founder of Autism Movement Therapy Inc. She is the author of “Autism Movement Therapy Method: Waking up the Brain!”