Preparing students with intellectual disabilities for work


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was inspired by an webinar sponsored by STAR Autism Support (

Temple Grandin, a woman diagnosed with autism who revolutionized the cattle handling industry, and who is the subject of the movie Temple Grandin, often says she could exist in the workforce because social skills were “pounded into her” during her “1950’s upbringing.”

Grandin’s success in the workforce is rare. National data shows an 81 percent unemployment rate among adults with autism. At least 500,000 children with autism will soon become adults, and will need jobs, homes, and a future, as will those with other disabilities.

How can schools help students with intellectual disabilities achieve success? Grandin’s observations about her upbringing jibe with the understanding that it’s important to give kids skills early on. Schools can do three things:

  1. Start early. For example, as early as preschool, children can be taught to follow a schedule.
  2. Provide consistent instruction, with each grade level building on previous skills learned.
  3. Use evidence-based practices. Reports published by the National Autism Center,, list behavioral interventions proven helpful even for adults. These include:
    • Task analysis (identifying steps needed to perform an activity)
    • Changing antecedents and consequences (changing what happens prior to and after an expected behavior, to change the behavior)
    • Pre-teaching of target skills (isolating the skills needed, and teaching them one-on-one beforehand)
    • Prompting and fading of prompts
    • Positive reinforcement of the target behavior
    • Discrete trial training

In other words, the answer is to teach routines and related lessons.

Routines are the activities students do throughout the day so they can be more independent, such as the routine for behavior in a cafeteria, or routine for changing classes.

Lessons teach the foundational skills needed to perform routines, such as purchasing an item and telling the difference between a dollar and a quarter.

For example, to help students learn how to gather and sort recyclables from each schoolroom at a certain time of day, a recycling routine was broken down into four lessons:

  1. identifying the location of the rooms,
  2. sorting items into categories,
  3. the social skills of being part of a recycling team, and
  4. identifying the associated time and schedule.

The children were given a written checkoff schedule to see which room to go to. Pre-teaching was given to help students match words to pictures — this included a lot of positive feedback during instruction. To help them along, children were given verbal cues (telling them what to do), and modeled cues (Watch me!).

Teaching more complicated skills, such as how to go on a job interview or perform a job, can also be broken down into routines, lessons, cues, and expected behavior. To this end, the LINKS Curriculum is a useful tool. In addition to ready-made curriculum, it provides templates for teachers to document the cues and expected behavior which comprise a routine.

The screen shot below shows the LINKS template for documenting a routine.

curriculum area

Curriculum Areas determined by LINKS Curriculum

The LINKS Curriculum is a systematic progression of routines and lessons designed to give students the skills for independence. Circled on the chart below are skills associated with job interviews, as identified by LINKS.

LINKS translates the job interview routine into cues and behaviors, as shown on the chart below. Related lessons are also identified.

Routine for a job interview

Routine for a job interivew

LINKS also provides social stories in visual format, as a teaching aid. To learn more about the LINKS Curriculum tool and training, visit


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