At College of the Canyons, a unique program is addressing critical workforce needs while providing a career path for high-functioning adults with autism.

It is estimated that one in 54 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Although early intervention can improve learning, social and communication skills, the fact remains that nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.[i]

It doesn’t have to be that way. “The characteristics of autism that are considered disadvantages in life, such as intense focus, attention to detail, and the preference to work alone can be a significant advantage in certain career fields,” says Lynda Deperno, coordinator for College of the Canyons Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA).  Housed within the college’s Centers for Applied Competitive Technologies, the UAA trains high-functioning adults with autism for career-ready paths as computer numerically controlled (CNC) technicians. The program was funded by the California Department of Rehabilitation and the American Job Center of California.

To enter, potential students must pass math and reading tests, and then interview to make sure they’re a good fit for the program. They range in age from 18 to 35 and go through the course as a cohort. These cohorts are kept small—about a dozen students each—so students have plenty of hands-on time on the machinery as well as attention from teachers.

“These students are learning to be entry-level CNC machinists,” explains Centers Director Devin Daugherty, Ph.D. “They know how to use the drill press, lathe and CNC machines, and they’ve had their OSHA and safety training. Then we dive into different techniques used in manual and CNC machining, and they learn to program a CNC machine. The parts they make are often complex and must be very specific. They can’t be off by a fraction of a millimeter.”

Toward the end of the 12-week intensive course, students are given a final project that involves cutting and drilling an aluminum block. “We final test each project to be sure they hit all their marks,” Daugherty says.

Along with hands-on machining skills, students have classes in professional skills such as resume building, interviewing, proper dress, and social skills. Before graduation, representatives from partner institutions are invited to interview them.

How great is the need for well-trained CNC machinists in California? “Well, there are 235 employers in the Santa Clarita and surrounding areas that hire CNC operators, and many of those have between three and five openings,” says Daugherty, adding, “All of our students get placed.”

In fact, most are offered jobs on the spot or are called in for a second interview. CNC machinists are in high demand in California’s aerospace industry, as well as in medical device and high-performance auto parts manufacturing.

There’s no question that technology has given people with autism more opportunities than in the past, allowing them to work alone and in their home environment. “That alone has helped to remove many of the barriers that previously stood in their way,” says Daugherty. 

Having proven successful with the CNC program, the UAA is currently developing similar programming in information technology and cybersecurity, with the hope of opening registration at the start of next year.