What my autistic teenager didn't do over her summer vacation.
August 4, 2022 11:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm feeling like a terrible parent, because I wasn't able to help my (mildly) autistic 16-year-old daughter find something to do over the summer. She failed to get a job, and I couldn't find any summer programs for her age that didn't cost multiple thousands of dollars. So my question is twofold: is it just harder for high school kids to find jobs than in my (late Gen X) day? And what can we find for her next summer to avoid a repeat? More inside.

I mention her autism because I think it hurt her chances with jobs in the instances where she applied to local businesses in person - she is very flat-affect and can seem unfriendly (and I specify "mild," though I know functioning labels are controversial, to clarify that she is capable of typical store clerk work).

It would be nice for her to earn money and have some responsibility next summer, but I'd be open to an unpaid internship or something for her as well. I just want her to have _something_ to do other than sit in her bedroom on Discord all day - preferably something that enriches her life.

She's an artist, but I don't have $5,000 to send her to a summer art residency in New York City or something.


-She strongly dislikes interacting with children, so some of the obvious answers, like camp counselor, are out of the question. Ideally she could get a job stocking shelves or something, but we didn't hear back from any of the chain stores where she applied to do that.

-We live in a small town, 2+ hours from any major cities, so we're not near any big cultural institutions.
posted by missrachael to Work & Money (44 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I wish you lived near me because we could really use a volunteer artist in my library. I have lots of areas I would like to brighten up with some paint/a mural/art but I am just not capable of it, and none of my current volunteers are either.

So perhaps check with your local library? Be sure to specify that she is an artist and could help that way. If you call and just ask for volunteer hours, that won't be as helpful to you or them, in my experience.
posted by lyssabee at 11:59 AM on August 4, 2022 [3 favorites]

She's an artist

Did she make art over break? If so, you should focus on that rather than on status-markers like (utterly crap) jobs or camps. Because if you're looking for "something that enriches her life", it's hard to beat being creative.

(And if she didn't, explore why. You don't need a $2000 residency in New York to be a teenage artist. A sketchbook and some pencils, a decent used camera, a cheap acoustic guitar, and a smartphone should be more than enough for just about anyone.)
posted by kevinbelt at 12:05 PM on August 4, 2022 [31 favorites]

Volunteer work. Is there an animal shelter nearby?
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:07 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Library! Yes!
posted by Oyéah at 12:08 PM on August 4, 2022

Response by poster: (For my one get out of jail free threadsit)

The library is a good idea, if maybe she goes in there with specific ideas of what she can offer as a volunteer. She went in before and they didn't have much for her to do.

She is making art, but not as much as I or she would like her to be. That would be the value of a structured program: providing motivation to work on it intensively.
posted by missrachael at 12:11 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I don't have any insight into specific jobs, but this here Internet Stranger™ hereby absolves you from your parental guilt over this matter! He's way younger than your daughter, but my spouse and I have basically given our 7yo the summer "off," and he's been spending it doing Lego and reading books. Summertime is surely the right time for such activities!
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:11 PM on August 4, 2022 [21 favorites]

-Does she have art supplies? As a teen I'd go and sketch/pant landscapes, urban scenes, etc. You don't need to send her to a fancy art residency. [Edit: just saw your update, but see my point below about MeetUps..]

-What volunteer opportunities are in your town that your teen might like? Serving meals to the homeless, planting trees/park clean ups, are all pretty common options.

-You could also check out your local MeetUps - again, depending on what hobbies she likes- there will likely be some art related ones, outdoor activities, etc. Many are have a wide age range of participants.

-The easiest jobs to get are those that are seasonal - so restaurants that get busier in the summer, for example. Chain stores are less likely to be seasonal.
posted by coffeecat at 12:12 PM on August 4, 2022

You want her to have something structured for next summer. But what does she want? Maybe two months off is what she needs to avoid burnout.
posted by heatherlogan at 12:14 PM on August 4, 2022 [34 favorites]

You want her to have something structured for next summer. But what does she want? Maybe two months off is what she needs to avoid burnout.

Yes, if she's autistic, she may be quite burned out by the time the school year ends and need quiet unstructured time to recharge her mental batteries / emotional batteries.
posted by carriage pulled by cassowaries at 12:17 PM on August 4, 2022 [9 favorites]

Another unstructured art thing that might help is to make one thing for a portfolio a week.
posted by advicepig at 12:20 PM on August 4, 2022

I have a sibling in high school who has autism, and he’s worked summer restocking jobs at clothing stores and grocery stores via some sort of county job-assist program for people with disabilities. Basically, they matched him up with potential jobs as well as a coach who comes with him to the job to keep an eye on things (not just to check that he’s staying on task, but also to liaison between him and the boss). I wish I knew more details, but from what I can tell it’s been a good experience, and he’s gotten at least 3 jobs this way. Maybe there’s something similar in your area?
posted by chaiyai at 12:30 PM on August 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

When I was 17, I worked as the cook at a small daycare. It was great! Solo work, didn't have to interact with children generally, but I think my general friendliness with the teachers and at least smiling at the kids when I delivered the food was important (but maybe not burdensome).
posted by amtho at 12:32 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I don't know what the job market is like in your area, but in my area everyone seems desperate for employees right now, so I would not say it's harder for teenagers to find jobs than it used to be. Being only 16 does limit the options a bit, though. My 16 year old applied at Dollar General and they really needed people and would have liked to hire him, but because they sell alcohol they couldn't. (But grocery stores also sell alcohol and they hire 16 year olds. I'm not sure what the difference is. Maybe it's okay if you're only working the register?) At the job he did get, he learned that 16 year olds are not supposed to use box cutters. He does do some shelf stocking, but to be legal about it, he has to tear the boxes open with his hands instead of using a box cutter, which is less efficient. So I wouldn't be surprised if jobs that are 100% stocking shelves usually go to people who are 18+.

Washing dishes at a restaurant or cleaning at a motel or resort could be jobs where employers care less about whether she comes across as friendly.
posted by Redstart at 12:33 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

NYU has a virtual summer art program for high schoolers; not cheap (though not $5K), but their site does mention that scholarships are available, so it might at least be worth exploring.
posted by praemunire at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

When I was looking for summer jobs it was extremely hard & I kept getting turned down because managers don't want to hire people knowing they'll just be gone in a few weeks.

Now would be a good time for her to be building an art portfolio & thinking about college. That will be much more valuable than stocking shelves & getting Covid for $7/hour. Maybe you can try to help her structure that as a project. X portfolio pieces per month, x colleges evaluated.
posted by bleep at 12:47 PM on August 4, 2022 [6 favorites]

Well the small town I grew up in was economically depressed so all the jobs that teens would theoretically do were taken by adults, who are much more reliable (generally able to drive, don't have to schedule around school).

In a larger city, most places are begging for workers, so generally it is easier for kids who want them to find temporary jobs than when gen-x was teens.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:50 PM on August 4, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I was a kid and it was summer, my parents would tell me to go play outside. They eventually figured out that it was easier to tell me to go read outside. "Get out of the house" was another one. So I spent a lot of my summers reading outside until it was too hot or I was thirsty or needed the bathroom or whatever and then I'd wander in, and they'd send me right back out when they realized.

You may not need to figure out how she spends her time for her. It may be enough to tell her to do whatever it is outside, and let her figure out the details of what that looks like.
posted by aniola at 12:56 PM on August 4, 2022 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Firstly, you're not a terrible parent. I agree with others that having some unstructured time is probably just what she needed even if it doesn't look like anything is happening from your perspective.

For jobs, there are sometimes jobs funded especially for students (so you have to be below a certain age and going into fulltime studies to qualify and the government subsidizes their pay so employers are incentivized to hire students), maybe this is not a thing in the US but it's a thing in Canada. I would look into that for next year, and have her start applying in the spring to have a better chance.

I think the idea of volunteering is nice regardless of whether she gets a job next year, I would try to get her thinking about that next spring as well. Or you could watch some art documentaries or similar with her and encourage her to do some portfolio type of work or take an online class next summer, I agree that would be a good use of her time. 16-18 is still very young.
posted by lafemma at 1:05 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I hear you-while my 12 year old would really love to spend his entire summer in a dark room playing video games and watching YouTube-and mostly has so far-it’s not been what I feel is good for him. His 16 year old sister has a much more structured summer due to sports and a job and I would say she seems happier. Different ages, different kids, ymmv, etc.

Would working at a pool/lifeguard interest her? Where I live they are desperate for lifeguards-and if you work morning shifts you’re not interacting with kids-just lap swimmers and aerobics folks.
posted by purenitrous at 1:09 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

I would check if her school helps facilitate work experience/ internships.

Maybe she can sell some of her art online?

I think it's also worth asking your daughter to do so some research on opportunities for next summer. For instance, financial aid may be available (e.g interlochen). In addition, she might want to brainstorm what additional skills she can develop that others are willing to pay her for.

Also you may want to make sure your daughter knows now about your household's expectations for school and work especially after high school graduation. While it will help to be over 18, it will quite possibly always be challenging for your daughter to find meaningful employment/ internships in her areas of interest in her hometown. Therefore it might be helpful for your daughter to know now that she should expect to figure out how she can live outside the family home in order to work/ intern over her summers during college.
posted by oceano at 1:33 PM on August 4, 2022

Best answer: Is there a guidance counselor at her school? They could be a natural partner for brainstorming/strategizing starting now, especially thinking about internships and/or opportunities that might allow her to make use of her artistic skills (illustration, graphic or interior design work, sign or house painting - I also know a fair number of artists who love doing landscaping and gardening work, which is great for hands-on and outside).
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 1:43 PM on August 4, 2022

For motivation/structure could she do an online art class? It's not even too late to do that. Outschool classes are often reasonably priced.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 1:57 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It might be helpful for you to know that it’s a motherfucking nightmare to try and get a job as an autistic person.
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:05 PM on August 4, 2022 [13 favorites]

Art classes provide 1) instructors 2) classmates 3) allocated time 4) allocated resources and 5) feedback. Instruction can be free videos online, she might not need or want classmates, and if you provide 3 and 4, she will get most of the benefit. "Use these supplies up" and "Make something every weekday" might be enough structure.

I think the most important part of a structured creative class/program is that materials and supplies are allocated to you and you are expected to make something with them. There's never a chance where the artist might get stuck thinking "would I be wasting this supply if I made something with it right now." One way to provide a bit of structure and get around that paralysis is to get some supplies for the specific purpose of using them up in the next week/month, etc.

Bonus points if some of what is being made meets the portfolio requirements for a school. Some of them are quite general (make a self-portrait) while others have specific assignments with instructions to follow. If this is scary, a good exercise is "try to make the worst possible version of this you can" or the weirdest or the most boring or the most specific. Or have the only goal to make three versions that are entirely different. The details don't really matter as long as you're making something.
posted by delezzo at 2:56 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Summer jobs haven't really been a thing since the 2000s, at least in my area -- Gen Xers who weren't my parents would get routinely frustrated with me as a young millenial for turning down the idea of a summer job, but I wasn't interested in doing boring, exhausting service work just to pass the time, when I could be recuperating my energy and getting to know myself more in my alone time. Even in my hometown, it was very specific jobs like being a lifeguard, which I wasn't interested in. There are too many underemployed older adults to fill service work needs now.

Autistic high schoolers need downtime to rest and relax during the summer and be in touch with themselves. My mom never pressured me to get a summer job, and any summer program I did, I initiated it and applied for it myself. We don't get those summers back once we start college or work, and we need a lot of downtime to process or thoughts and feelings, which may be foreign to your experience.

For anecdotal information -- when I got to college I was extremely intellectually stimulated and did several jobs I was interested in, now my problem is that I'm a grad student who doesn't have enough downtime. I am so glad my mom never pushed normative opinions I how I should send my summer.
posted by yueliang at 3:16 PM on August 4, 2022 [11 favorites]

If you are located in California, I recommend California Summer School of the Arts, which is where I went and that summer changed my life, it was like a one month long MFA program for high schoolers, but we had no pressure to make art into a career. I would caution about other arts programs that potentially have more pressure kids into choosing professional arts careers -- a lot of my friends burned out in their early 20s because of this and quit their art careers, and people being too aggressive about their artistic promise in their teens.

Otherwise, I would encourage her to think of some fun things she can do to explore and even travel for, and usually those programs have financial aid. It's pretty easy to search out, and even her teachers may have some recommendations -- but I would recommend framing it for her as something fun, and not because you're anxious about her future, which is so off-putting and I would immediately reject anything that isn't from a genuine place that centers the parent more than my own wellbeing. Google is less good than it used to be, so maybe on other social media it may be easier to find cool programs to go to. But ultimately, she needs to want to go, and she might just be so burned out that being at home and resting is what she needs.
posted by yueliang at 4:29 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

There is also pre-college immersion programs hosted at local universities as well, and then college preparation programs like TASP, Posse, Questbridge, or etc. There are tons and tons but tbh the idea of prepping and applying to summer programs needs to be emphasized as a fun activity that is exciting and personally interesting for your teen, and probably an honest conversation to have.
posted by yueliang at 4:36 PM on August 4, 2022

Additionally -- she could also benefit from a structured program that helps her choose a topic on her own, but the rest is facilitated, like job shadowing or an internship. Probably the most interesting thing I did in high school was a combination career shadow + service work year long project, where I learned how to cold call and pitch a project. It was a good combination for me, because it had specific deliverables, but a lot of freedom so I could determine what I was interested in. Those skills stuck with me as I went into college and kept on initiating my own projects and pitching my own summer internships.
posted by yueliang at 4:39 PM on August 4, 2022

In my area there are volunteer opportunities for teens at these kinds of places:
- land trust (weed removal, pollinator planting)
- food bank (stocking shelves, packing snacks)
- clothing donation shop (sorting by size, hanging up clothes)
- zoo or nature center(animal care)
- local events (church carnival, street fair, festival)

Idealist.org is a good source for volunteer opportunities or ideas that might spark something.

You could potentially help set her up with small gigs feeding cats while people are away via your local Facebook or NextDoor group. Or set her up with a friend who will pay her to help clean out the garage.

There are online art classes via Outschool, the Art Students League in NY, and the University of the Arts London.
posted by xo at 5:14 PM on August 4, 2022

For next summer: my teens loved going to summer camp, through the Y and Girl Scouts. Both have financial assistance. Camps tend to fill up early, so you're going to want to get on mailing lists by December to find out when registration opens.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:15 PM on August 4, 2022

Okay this is my last response -- my other thing is that it is honestly totally okay and fine if she does not do anything during the summer. There is no requirement in the parenting handbook that a teen has to do anything! If anything, our lives are so packed and very overscheduled.

If you really have a huge problem with it, I would recommend having a conversation with her and wondering if she would be interested in doing anything next summer, but if you are seeing this as a personal failure, I would emphasize being more in touch with your emotions and clarifying them, and then taking the time to listen to her about her feelings and needs. I genuinely hated having to deal with my mom's anxieties because sometimes she didn't listen to me even when I said what I really wanted, so help yourself and her both feel heard, because it may not actually be about the summer gig.

Temporally, summer is quickly ending anyway -- I would advise letting her enjoy it, the pandemic is exhausting, plus she isn't going to be around the house forever.
posted by yueliang at 6:14 PM on August 4, 2022 [8 favorites]

Best answer: From my child:
I'm a teenager. I don't have a job. Here are some things I'm doing instead.

I volunteer with a local forest restoration organization. I found them on a list of community service opportunities for teens in the place where I live.

I meet with a local grassroots group for a cause that matters to me. I found them through ACLU People Power of [my state].

I go to a camp for teens learning how to play [sport]. I found it by searching "[sport] teen [my region]."

I volunteer at a community center for people belonging to [demographic group that I'm a part of]. I don't work with children. I do other things.

If I did want a job, it would be hard for me to find one. Most places hiring prefer people over 18. My best chance outside of childcare would probably be working as a life guard.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:41 PM on August 4, 2022 [5 favorites]

I’m a nerd but I took a lot of Continuing Ed classes at the local community college some summers. Super cheap so you could try out random topics you’re curious about. I’ve done stop-motion animation, color theory, creative writing, marketing, etc.
posted by bendy at 10:32 PM on August 4, 2022 [1 favorite]

Autistic adult here - the one summer I really wanted not to just have unstructured time I did summer school for a single class. It wasn’t a class I had failed, but I don’t remember if I had already taken it or if I then took it again the next year. The point is that it was basically a blow off class for me with no consequences but did get me out of the house. Honestly, most of what I needed was not feeling pressure to be productive.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:06 AM on August 5, 2022 [3 favorites]

Does she like swimming? She can take a class with the Red Cross (they run around $300ish) to become a certified lifeguard and make great money. It's a great investment that she can always fall back on (the recertification is much cheaper). The good thing about this is that it can be a job throughout the school year -- or even in college -- on the weekends at health clubs or the YMCA/JCC.

A friend's 17yo daughter was making $20/hr at a senior citizen apartment complex where she watched three or four ladies in the pool daily. They got out of the water for the last 15-20 minutes of each hour so the lifeguard got a break.

Also, as others pointed out, your daughter might be eligible to take classes at the local community college next year to get credit ahead of time. So much cheaper to get them out of the way by going this route.
posted by dancinglamb at 3:35 AM on August 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

I work at a museum and I’ve been experimenting with offering “remote internships” or remote volunteer work. If someone like your daughter reached out to me I’d definitely chat or email with them and see if we could find a project with mutual value to both of us. I say “experimenting” because it doesn’t always work out- people who need to work remotely often find that they have less time available than they thought, or something in-person pulls them away, and due to the remote nature the communication on this isn’t always great.

I did work with a volunteer similar to your daughter for a short project. I was going to have them help me dust, maintain, and care for specimens on display. But we determined in-person work was overstimulating and working from home was better. I had a lot of old display signage that had no electronic counterpart- so I took photos and emailed them to be transcribed.
posted by Secretariat at 8:16 AM on August 5, 2022

Anecdotally, the places most likely to hire teens were the places that only had a seasonal need for labor anyways so that they weren't bothered when teens went back to school. That includes lifeguarding, camp counseling, etc. but also includes outdoor movies, theme parks, tourist attractions, agricultural work, misc outdoor labor, etc. Does your area have many places like that?

I don't know how much to trust a random trend piece in the Washington Post, but according to that is apparently some information that supports the idea that places that were unwilling to hire teenagers in previous years are now more willing to do so.

Also - a number of places have what is typically called a Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which is typically a sort of placement service for teens who want summer jobs within the local community. Sounds like your area may not be big enough for that, but worth googling nonetheless.
posted by mosst at 8:27 AM on August 5, 2022

Response by poster: Point taken about this being about my anxieties, because I am very worried about how she will make her way in the world as the odd duck she is (I am also an odd duck), but the desire for a job was coming from her because she wants to make money, and the rejection has not made her feel great. It's reassuring to hear that teenage summer jobs are less of a thing than they were in the past.

We will be more strategic next year about planning for a summer that meets all of her needs.
posted by missrachael at 8:30 AM on August 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Another thing to consider is if she hasn't taken driver's Ed yet, summer might be a good time for that. (It can take a lot of energy.)

And some discords can encourage art -- I'm part of a fandom one that has an art class and regular art challenges paired with writing, as well as places to share art all the time. It's definitely got me creating more.

I agree that if your daughter would like to go to art school/college for art, working on her portfolio is a good idea. One of my friends had a wide range of neat art, but found out at the last minute that a school she was applying to required hand drawn portraits as part of the portfolio, which would have been easier with more time. So might as well find out now what the requirements are.
posted by blueberry monster at 10:14 AM on August 5, 2022

I am very worried about how she will make her way in the world as the odd duck she is (I am also an odd duck)

One of the best things for me that anyone ever said to either of my parents was the time when, in second grade, my principal told my dad not to worry about me; no matter what I did in life, I'd be fine.

You're doing ok. Your kid will, too.
posted by aniola at 10:39 AM on August 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

The library can be a place to volunteer, but it can also be a place to build community. If there is a teen or community outreach service - a suggestion for an interest group or autistic teen meet up group may be very welcome. The library has staff to facilitate the organization of these things.
posted by Gor-ella at 12:22 PM on August 5, 2022

Another suggestion is that if there are any local higher education colleges in your area, she can read up on professor's research and work in their labs or studios early as a research or studio assistant. She can write an email explaining her interest and having some avaliable time, and I think it would be really cool! It's really fun and so immersive, and it is good at helping a high schooler be acclimated to that culture of being taken seriously. Best of luck, she and you will be just fine!
posted by yueliang at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2022

"Is it harder today for a teen to find a job?" is a very subjective question-- my gut feeling tends toward yes.

But as far as concrete data goes, teen labor force participation has been plummeting.

Whatever the causes, it is clear that teens today are in a very different situation compared to when I was a teenager in the mid- to late-90's.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 5:57 PM on August 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm actually on team job or camp or volunteer for something that I learned at 18 from my therapist/minister uncle that only saw for a week or so per year over those 18 years and is something he had been slowly teaching me when we saw each other and that christmas break at 18 when he told me some things was the last time we met because he would pass away a year or so later when I was off in university.

That thing is this: when you go back and look on your life it's the memories and interactions that you had. Twenty years from now spending your entire summer alone just drawing or painting or playing with leggos or watching tv or reading books is not going to a fulfilling great memory compared to something like that time at summer camp or working at that kitchen or library or animal shelter.

There's more to life than this.
posted by zengargoyle at 3:43 PM on August 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

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