We Need More Autistic People In “The Trades”: Career and Technical Education (CTE) Has To Become Neurodiverse

When Steve’s computer wouldn’t turn on last Saturday, he yelled up the stairs for Ian to help out. Ian ran to the garage and got the right screwdrivers. He put that big Dell unit on its side on the floor and opened it up. He removed the innards of the machine, unplugging and plugging in the various components. After three minutes, he looked up and said, “it’s the power supply.” 

Ian loaded the unit up into the back of the car — an EMT and his patient — we raced to Best Buy, the big box electronics store, because they have a PC repair service in the store called The Geek Squad. We paid them $200, they opened it up, and they said, “it’s the power supply.” 

Afterwards, I asked the pleasant young man behind the counter how he got his job. Did he have a computer science degree? He said that he hadn’t taken any computer college classes, but had picked up information on his own. He explained that the guys in the backroom, who will install the new component and do diagnostics on the machine tonight, took online Geek Squad classes, passed tests, and got certified — also no college education. 

The lightbulb went on: Ian could do that. 

In 2023, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 36 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2020 data. Despite the high prevalence of this disability, 85 percent of adults with autism are unemployed. The neurodiverse population would be better served by a fulfilling job than a government hand-out. We need smart career support for autistic adults, provided by public schools, state labor departments, or non-profit organizations.

Read more at The Great Leap, my Wednesday newsletter


15 thoughts on “We Need More Autistic People In “The Trades”: Career and Technical Education (CTE) Has To Become Neurodiverse

  1. I love Geek Squad! they also fix and trouble shoot smart phones, etc.

    It bears remembering that 100 years ago there wre far more occupations that worked for people with high functioning autism. For starters, before WW!, a very high percentage of people lived on farms, where you can go all day without having to interact with other people in the complicated and stressful way that most jobs require today.

    Even assembly line jobs — including many that paid well and had benefits — were not demanding of a person’s social skills.

    It would almost make sense to reverse-engineer some jobs to remove or greatly diminish the social interaction component.


  2. I loved this description — because I could see through your words the jolt of confidence I feel when I can do something well, even when it is entirely internal and no one is telling me “Good job”. I remember when your kiddo “geek-squadded” Steve’s computer without prior authorization and remember thinking that might be a economically useful skill.

    Interesting idea to think about reverse engineering jobs to emphasize the talents of a person. I am currently reading job advertisements for “admin/development coordinator” jobs for small not-for-profits and they are written as jack of all trades including skills that I think are rarely optimized in one person (from event planning, greeting and supervising challenging teens, designing posters, managing donors, thanking donors, tracking money in software, writing manuals, promoting the organization on social media, marketing, writing foundation grants . . . . .).

    And social interactions are invading all the jobs because they are the ones that can’t be done to scale in computer/automated ways. Some skills should be separable into front/back office skills so that you can use the talents of the good talker who isn’t so good at taking apart a computer and the computer debugger.


  3. I think this is less of a training issue and more of an issue of how managers have had the advantage over labor since the housing crash and that they now resent having to acknowledge that employees are humans with various different needs that you have to deal with if you want them to be able to work.


    1. Oh my, I’m talking to the managers at not-for-profits in this scenario, and their issue is that employees are humans with various different needs, but so are the clients of the organization and the money is limited. There are no profits or shareholders. There are different employees who earn different amounts of money and do different work with different skills. Acknowledging the wants and needs of the employees mean, very concretely, that fewer people get served (which doesn’t mean that the needs shouldn’t be met, merely that it will mean that the organization does less of whatever good it is going to accomplish). Managing people so that the clients get served (say, the woman who is trying to get a restraining order about her violent spouse) can’t be dismissed as earnings going to owners of capital.

      (note that this is the battle between teachers and parents and administrators and taxpayers, too).


      1. But it’s not getting less done if there isn’t a person who is willing to take the position that is qualified, and that is the case in for many jobs around here (mostly those that don’t pay very well). Your choices are pay more, give up, or figure out a way to make it work with someone who you didn’t think was qualified. When “qualified” includes things that aren’t strictly necessary, this should be an easy choice.

        Of course, if you do own a bunch of capital, you can try to get the Fed to start a recession as a way to hope for lower wages so the Burger King can open for more hours without cutting into profits.


      2. Yes, indeed that is the challenge. The not-for-profit doesn’t have the money to pay a professional and then these jobs remain unfilled and when they do get filled the person does’t actually have the skills needed and they burn out trying (I actually saw a number of them advertised).

        I think the ones that *might* get filled and where the system could work are at larger not-for-profits who have mid-level managers who may offer training to the jill/jack in the trades they don’t yet have. But, whether you will get that in the position is a risk to take.

        Having these conversations with multiple different stakeholders including my children right now. And, hearing from a number of gen-xers including ones graduating this year of an unwillingness to work for the “man” (which in some cases includes any business that makes a profit). Just listened to one complaining about the sellouts working at the investment banks and FANG companies.


      3. I don’t know much about operating non-profits or FANG. (Though I do know a google employee who picked up a knife by the blade and made for a really vivid safety lesson the cub scouts in the area. Also, the google people like my neighborhood and have made houses more expensive here. You can now pay $500,000 for only 2,000 square feet. )

        I think that any real solution to America’s problems involves much higher wages, especially for the lowest paid half of the work force. So far as wages seem to be heading up lately, I think it is promising even though it is a very big short term problem for many people. And, on the topic of this post, my point is that the shrinking labor force that is driving higher wages will do more than career training to make it so those who have autism or some kind of disability will be able to find work.


      4. MH, try more than $600k for less than 1000 square feet. That’s my ‘affordable’ neighborhood.


    2. I also had the thought that if an employee isn’t a jack of all trades, say, they can write grants really well, but can’t plan events, or manage the classes the not-for-profit offers, that once the grants are written and the funding obtained and the events and classes start, that employee needs to be replaced with one who can do the other work.


      1. As, I’m sure you know – that scenario is called sequential contractors, rather than employees.
        And isn’t cheap. Contractors – because they have no job security – charge a heck of a lot more as an hourly rate, than you’ll pay an employee.
        Of course, if they are low-skilled jobs – then it becomes a gig-economy – and that comes with its own set of problems.

        Really, not-for-profits operating on the smell of an oily rag – don’t have a lot of good choices, when it comes to employees – and tend to default to the medium (a people-person, who’s prepared to take less than the going rate, but doesn’t really have specialized skills)

        One of the better options, is to separate out these ‘high value professional tasks’ and see if you can get ‘real’ professionals to do a bit of pro-bono work for you; or to tie in with educational institutions and get your charity assigned as class-work.
        I’ve seen both work in areas like marketing, or website design.


      2. Seems like you’ve seen the model from inside, too. I think an issue for a small size business, too, in the 350K outlays and irregular revenue (or grants and donations, for a not-for-profit).

        And, that 350K enterprise faces special issues when it’s growing and the mix of loosely trained jack of all trades, consultants, and pro-bono (or family labor) work isn’t enough. I’m noting different staffing challenges at 350K, 1 million, and 10 million.


      3. Growing a business (whether a profit-driven one or a charity) is a really challenging task.
        Plenty have done well within a specific niche – but fail when expanded (over-extended, come up against more competition, don’t have the contacts at the new level, etc.)
        But it almost always comes down to ‘not the right leadership’.

        Doubling the size of a business is a truly risky endeavour. And there is nothing wrong with choosing to stay ‘right-sized’ for your niche.

        Having the ‘right’ people is critical for business. And understanding that the ‘right people’ for a start-up or a local niche business, may not be the ‘right people’ for an aggressive expansion.

        Frequently start-up or owner-operated businesses or charities have run on the passion/expertise of one person. And that person may well not have the skills to effectively delegate, or to attract and choose the right staff, or to negotiate with major lendors/donors, or to commission marketing campaigns.

        Finding a way to transition that passionate innovator into a role which is not the CEO – is a really difficult challenge. Generally, you don’t want them to walk away (unless it truly is a tech startup) – because their passion and connections are still important to the success, and they are frequently seen as the ‘face’ of the business.


      4. Want to be COO of a small but rapidly growing startup not-for-profit on the other side of the pacific ocean? :-). We do have more than a smelly oil rag for fuel, but, indeed, you are spot on with the challenges.

        I do wonder how the for-profit sector makes the jump from the 300K to 1 million to 10 million. It’s fascinating, and those of us who only worked for big institutions don’t understand it at all (and, in the tech industry, the jump can often involve an acquisition, sometimes an acquisition mostly for the purpose of acquiring the founder as an employee).


  4. To return to the topic, I do think ideas like “stackable” certificates have significant value and potential for everyone, including individuals with talents and support needs. I can’t gift the article, but LeBron James’ Starbucks in House Three Thirty in Akron is making the news right now (including a collaboration with Chase Bank) to train interns in stackable hospitality certificates.

    “They all will be trained in every facet of every business at House Three Thirty, from event planning to food service (there’s a fancy test kitchen in the basement sponsored by Pepsi, another of LeBron’s partners), to janitorial work. They get paid and they get the training credits.”

    I think paying during the training and developing certificates for people you would actually hire is the key for my support. I do not like the model where Microsoft/Amazon/etc work to increase the labor pool with vague statements about their current needs while the student/parent/taxpayer pays for the training because Microsoft really wants 50 people for every job.


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