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The term developmentally disabled usually describes people on the autism spectrum, who have their own challenges to employment, namely impaired social communication, restricted interests and repetitive behaviors.

A new, free program at Florida Gulf Coast University aims to assist young people with high-functioning autism bridge the gap between high school or college and the workplace.

Overseeing ASSET, or Assistive Social Skills and Employment Training, is Annemarie Connor, assistant professor of occupational therapy in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences.

ASSET participants are often young adults who have graduated from high school and have aged out of entitlements they had to helpful services like occupational therapy, access to a school counselor or speech therapist. So, they are at home, unemployed and isolated, Connor says.

“On a résumé they often look very strong, but they can’t get past the interview stage,” she says.

They often suffer from anxiety or depression, which exacerbate their difficulties in obtaining or retaining a job, she adds.

Connor, along with FGCU students working on occupational therapy master’s degrees and counseling master’s degrees—considered “near peers”—run sessions twice a year with these young people.

The current group of future employees in this spring session range in age from 17 to 27, says Connor. The program includes 13 weekly sessions of 21⁄2 hours of teaching, modeling, role play and feedback that end with dinner together.

It tackles such issues as what to do if you see your boss at a store, or if a customer complains about his food, or how to negotiate pay, and many other work-related problems.

The ASSET program originated with Connor and colleagues in 2014 at Michigan State University, where Connor earned her Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Counseling.

The FGCU program builds on Connor’s dissertation work and was awarded a 2019 American Occupational Therapy Association Intervention Research Grant.

The program is a win-win situation for the adults with autism, whose social skills improve, and the graduate students, who learn to run a therapy group and build their skills working with this population.

“They have some of the same stresses,” Connor says. “They [the graduate students], too, are transitioning to work, so there’s a ‘we’re in this together’ feeling.”

Some of the participants with autism are employed, but none are working full-time yet. Many of them are underemployed, Connor says, such as one who has a master’s degree and is working part time in retail.

Since studies have shown that employers usually decide within the first five minutes of an interview whether they’ll hire someone, Connor said, people with autism are at a distinct disadvantage.

ASSET aims to level that playing field.




Two industry-leading Naples companies recently committed to inclusive employment by hiring STARability Foundation participants. Luxury builder BCB Homes hired Brett Cooney, 25, whose positive attitude and attention to detail make him a great fit for providing varied administrative support.

And at prominent firm Stofft Cooney Architects, Matt Martel, 22, excels with cleaning and organizing responsibilities across the office.


It’s the Law

A 1938 federal law allows the intellectually disabled to be paid less based on comparing their productivity level with a non-disabled person. “This portion of the FLSA allows employers with an approved certificate to pay a subminimum wage to individuals whose earning capacity for the work to be performed is impaired by physical or mental disabilities,” says Fort Myers lawyer Geralyn Noonan, an employment law specialist. “These disabilities may include blindness, mental illness, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, alcoholism and drug addiction. A special minimum wage can be set by the employer, commen- surate with the worker’s individual productivity in proportion to the wage and productivity of experienced workers who do not have disabilities.” There are about 153,030 workers with disabilities in the United States who can be paid less than minimum wage under federal law, according to data from the Department of Labor. Some workers earn as little as 4 cents an hour.

None of the workers in this story earn less than what people without disabilities earn in the same position.

RELATED: The Power of Inclusion

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