Why Work for Free? The Benefits of Internships for Young Adults with Autism & LD

Many parents of young adults with autism and learning differences are curious about the value of unpaid internships. Some families wonder why The College Internship Program (CIP) values student internships, which are rarely paid opportunities. 


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


Eight Key Transferable Internship Skills

Internships can provide better opportunities for transition-age students to learn skills that are transferable to the workplace environment. These include the following 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 areas of skill generally have to be specifically taught and reinforced many times for young adults with learning differences, both in theory, and practice. Most workplaces expect but do not train employees in these areas.


Community Relationships Matter

At CIP, we carefully build our relationships with community members to identify potential internship sites. Our career team researches the companies background to determine the dependability of their commitment they are making, assess any safety concerns and training needs, and make sure the company's core values and practices correspond with those of our program. In addition, there may be considerations and protocols to be aware of due to evolving COVID 19 guidelines and directives.


Additionally, we determine if there may be any 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 opportunities to be successful when they may fall short of employment qualifications.  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 removes the anxiety and distress that a student with autism may experience from the responsibility and commitment the employer requires of paid employment, thus minimizing the risk of being terminated due to not being able to meet those expectations. 


Many students have college classes and all students attend CIP programming during the week. Unpaid internships allow much more flexibility in scheduling work shifts. Additionally, student interns can take time off over breaks. This makes it easier for students to travel home and spend time with their friends and families for holidays and school breaks.  Once a student obtains paid employment, their rank can be 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 and can work well for some students, young adults who obtain part-time paid employment can be subjected to different standards. These standards serve the best interest of the employer instead of the student.  This often means that their schedule varies and is inconsistent, which can result in missed CIP 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.


While taking part in internships, our students receive written feedback on various 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 (PIP) to implement at the site when necessary.


This effort 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: “Spencer”

Spencer is a first-year CIP student who is interning at a computer company.  His duties include “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, Spencer shared:

“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 the value of working independently and learning how to advocate for help, if needed.  After this experience and taking some courses in programming, Spencer will be prepared to seek paid employment.


In summary, the skills and experience that come from an internship in a professional setting, often in the area of a student’s interest, can outweigh the benefit of paid 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 internships are factors that aren’t typically available through paid employment. The value of this aspect of CIP’s comprehensive programming is priceless in the student’s journey as they transition 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.