Why Work for Free? The Benefit of Internships Over Paid Work for Young Adults with Autism & LD

Many parents ask us about their young adult with autism and/or learning differences obtaining paid employment during their time in the CIP program.  Some families and their students wonder why we focus on internships, which are rarely paid opportunities.

Why work for free, right? Let’s explore the benefits of an internship over a paid job for young adults while attending comprehensive transition programs such as CIP.

Eight Key Transferable Internship Skills

Internships are better opportunities for our students to learn transferable skills in the workplace.  These include the eight skill sets referenced in CIP's Autism and Learning Differences Teaching Toolkit:


  • Communication
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Initiative/leadership
  • Planning/organizing
  • Self-management
  • Willingness to learn/flexibility
  • Technology in the workplace


These eight areas of skill generally have to be specifically taught and reinforced many times for young adults with learning differences, in theory, and practice. Most workplaces expect but do not train employees in these areas.


Community Relationships Matter

At CIP, we carefully build our relationship with community members to identify potential sites.  Our career team researches the companies to determine the dependability of the commitment that they are making, to assess any safety concerns and training needs, and to be sure the company's core values and practices correspond with those of our program.


Additionally, we determine if there may be sensory or transportation issues to consider. At each internship, our site supervisors have made a commitment to foster the development of valuable skills and to provide each student with many chances to be successful when they may fall short of employment qualifications in their area of interest.  Any skill deficits or performance issues are generally communicated by the site to our staff so that they can be addressed within the program.


Lower Anxiety With Flexible Schedules

Obtaining an internship first removes the anxiety and distress that a student may experience from the responsibility and commitment the employer requires, thus minimizing the risk of being terminated due to not being able to meet those expectations. 


Since some students have college classes and CIP appointments, internships also allow much more flexibility in scheduling shifts. Additionally, student interns can take time off over breaks. This makes it easier for students to travel home and spend time with their families for holidays and school breaks.  Once a student obtains paid employment, their rank is lower than a tenured employee, who may be awarded time off according to seniority.  


While paid employment might seem like a good way to make some extra money, young adults who obtain part-time employment are subjected to different standards- they serve the best interest of the employer instead of themselves.  This often means that their schedule varies and is inconsistent, resulting in missed programming if their assigned shift conflicts with appointments and classes. Rarely can our students rely on a steady income from paid employment.  


Value of Employer Feedback

Direct feedback in the workplace is often not communicated to employees.  Sometimes issues arise and supervisors in paid entry-level jobs might not be motivated to address them instead of simply not scheduling the employee for shifts or even letting them go.  If this happens, the young adult struggles to understand what went wrong and how to respond if a similar issue arises in the future.


In our CIP internships, students get written feedback on fourteen aspects of their performance as well as a narrative of their strengths and challenges on a regular basis.  Our career team reviews the feedback with our students, seeks clarity as needed from site supervisors, and creates a performance improvement plan to implement at the site when necessary.


This work addresses any potential training needs and prevents the development of workplace habits that are not compatible with employment success, such as inappropriate use of technology in the workplace.


Internship Case Study: Filipe

I spoke with Felipe, a first-year CIP student who is interning at a local computer company.  He describes “wiping clean” computer hard drives and reinstalling Windows so that the company can donate the recycled computers to local non-profits, churches, and schools. 


When asked what he has learned, Felipe said:

“I’ve learned what the workplace is like and how to get along with others so that I have a stable environment at work.”


He also mentioned working independently, but learning how to advocate for help, if needed.  After this experience and some courses in programming, Felipe will be prepared to seek paid employment.  

In summary, the skills and experience that come from an internship in a professional setting, possibly in the area of a student’s interest, often times outweigh the benefit of part-time employment in an entry-level position. 


The flexibility of scheduling, the commitment from our site supervisors, and the feedback that we obtain through an internship are factors that aren’t typically present through paid employment. The value of this aspect of our comprehensive programming is priceless in the student’s journey to independence.

About College Internship Program

The College Internship Program is a comprehensive transition program for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and with Learning Differences. Our Mission is to inspire independence and expand the foundation on which young adults with Autism, ADHD, and other Learning Differences can build happy and productive lives.