Dr. Temple Grandin: Preparing Students with Autism for the Workforce

As I drove down the interstate last week, I thought about the multitude of tasks involved in the act of driving that have become second nature for me over the past two-plus decades. From steering and maintaining a safe speed to monitoring blind spots and checking for other hazards (“Watch for deer” is a common phrase in Wisconsin for a reason), there is a lot to manage. Then throw a couple of children in the backseat who endlessly ask questions and always want another snack – it is no small feat getting from point A to point B without incident.

During a recent virtual workshop that I attended, Dr. Temple Grandin highlighted the importance of teaching students with autism how to drive, in preparation for entering the workforce. Driving is a skill that can provide individuals with independence and flexibility. Being a skilled driver can also open doors to other job-related opportunities such as operating a forklift in a warehouse, such as Home Depot. (I recently learned that Home Depot has made it their mission to hire individuals with disabilities. They go above and beyond by providing both job skills and social skills for as long as it takes for the trainees to independently do their jobs successfully.)

Dr. Grandin, who is an adult with autism, also acknowledged the complexities of driving, particularly for individuals with autism and others who struggle with executive functioning skills. When learning how to drive, she drove over 200 miles on dirt roads before she began driving on roads with traffic - it takes a lot of time and practice. I had not thought about it before, but as Dr. Grandin noted, riding tricycles, bikes, and playing with other toys that move and steer can help to develop the multiple executive functioning skills involved with becoming a future driver.

Dr. Grandin passionately spoke about starting to teach work skills and general life skills to students when they’re young – such as spending/saving, taking turns, writing, communicating effectively, grocery shopping, and ordering food at a restaurant. She mentioned having kids spend less time on screens and more time outdoors exploring. She noted how we need to allow kids to make mistakes to learn and grow - “They need to tinker to make things work, often times kids give up too easily.” Dr. Grandin also pointed out that many of today’s kids don’t know how to use basic tools such as rulers, tape measures, and hammers. (Turns out Home Depot made a YouTube video on how to read a tape measure – I looked it up after Dr. Grandin mentioned it.)

She encouraged us to expose students to as many experiences as possible, including hands-on classes such as woodworking, cooking, welding, auto mechanics, art, and music. It’s okay if kids don’t like something – they just need opportunities to try. Dr. Grandin reminded us, “Focus on [students’] strengths and interests – entertain their curiosity.”


When she was 15, Dr. Grandin went to her aunt’s ranch to work for the summer - piquing her interest in the agriculture industry. She was connected with mentors in the field, participated in internships (often doing the “grunt work”), showed employers her work, developed a strong reputation, and eventually went on to become a well-respected leader and pioneer in safe and humane lifestock handling practices.

Although fewer than half of adults with autism are employed, Dr. Grandin confidently stated, “Doors for job opportunities are everywhere – sometimes the backdoors. It is possible to find jobs that suit an individual’s interests, abilities, and sense of purpose.”

As Dr. Grandin emphasized, networking is so important and we must look beyond the “autism silo” when considering job opportunities. Volunteering provides gradual exposure to the workforce and valuable work experience. Consider farmer’s markets, local stores, churches, and animal shelters as possible options. Dr. Grandin also highlighted corporations that have employment and training programs that target individuals with autism, including Walgreens, Microsoft, Dell, Ford, Home Depot, and several more.

Finally, students with autism need to be equipped with self-advoacy skills as they enter the workforce. I loved Dr. Grandin’s advice, “Focus on the issue – not the condition of autism - and present a solution.” For example, some individuals with autism have sensory sensitivity with lights – they can see flicker in certain kinds of lighting that others might not notice. An employee might say to their employer,  “The lighting in my office gives me a headache, I’m going to bring in my own lamp.” Other possible accommodations in the workforce include:

  • Work outside or near a window for natural lighting
  • Noise cancelling headphones for noisy/distracting environments
  • Visual checklists with specific instructions/expectations instead of verbal instructions
  • Advance notice of meeting topics to allow for time to process thoughts before verbal participation
  • A mentor to assist with learning social skills/interacting with coworkers
  • Assistance with prioritizing tasks
  • Establish short and longterm goals

I appreciate Dr. Grandin’s passion for the possibilities of individuals with autism. Sadly, high school was the worst time of her life because she was teased and bullied by her peers. However, she shared that she had amazing teachers who noticed her potential, capitalized on her strengths and interests, and guided her along the right paths toward a long and successful career as a college professor, an author, a speaker, and a consultant on animal welfare. That is an impressive resume. We would love to hear your own insights on preparing students with autism for the workforce – please share!






Jill Rockwell
Jill has over 13 years of experience as a licensed teacher in the areas of Special Education, Reading Education, and Health Education. She embraces diversity and has worked with students in grades K-12 in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Jill completed her Master of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls while teaching full time. She fully understands the soaring demands of today’s teachers. Her courses are designed to maximize the time of all educators by providing engaging, meaningful, and applicable activities which can be used to enhance teaching practices. She focuses on research-based best practices and technology integration throughout her own instructional practices. Together with her husband and two young boys, Jill enjoys traveling, biking and the changing seasons of the great outdoors in Wisconsin. 

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