This study investigated whether sheltered workshops help prepare individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) for competitive employment within the community. Two groups of individuals were compared: (a) 215 supported employees who were in sheltered workshops prior to entering supported employment and (b) 215 supported employees who were not in sheltered workshops. Individuals from both groups were matched based on their primary diagnosis, secondary diagnosis (if present), and gender. Results showed that there were no differences in rates of employment between these two groups. However, individuals who participated in sheltered workshops earned significantly less (US$129.36 versus US$191.42 per week), and cost significantly more to serve (US$6,065.08 versus US$2,440.60), than their non-sheltered workshop peers. Results presented here suggest that individuals with ASD achieve better vocational outcomes if they do not participate in sheltered workshops prior to enrolling in supported employment.
There were four questions being investigated: how many in each group were hired, how many hours the hired individuals worked each week, how much the hired individuals earned, and how much money was spent on supportive services for each hired individual. The first two were nearly identical in both groups, but the Autistic people in the sheltered workshops earned less and required supportive services costing more money on average than those who were not in sheltered workshops.
I suppose there are several possible reasons for this major discrepancy.
Firstly, it may be that sheltered workshop programs are not designed for Autistic people. It is a well known fact that there are higher rates of homelessness and unemployment (or underemployment) among Autistic adults, but among the homeless population in general, there are very high frequency rates of intellectual disability and mental illnesses (such as Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder) as well as developmental disabilities. Because of this, it may be that the majority of sheltered workshop programs are intended and designed to work well for people with intellectual disability (when many, if not most, Autistic people are not also intellectually disabled, and all Autistic people will always have special challenges and needs that people whose sole condition is intellectual disability may not) or mental illness (again, when not all Autistic people also have co-occurring mental illnesses, and regardless, would have special needs anyway), but not designed to address the specific, widely-varying needs and abilities of Autistic people.
If this is so, sheltered workshop programs, therefore, do not teach Autistic people necessary social skills to navigate the job application process or social situations in the workplace once hired, necessary self-advocacy skills in a vocational setting, or marketable or competitive job skills useful for the Autistic individual in question. The purpose of a sheltered workshop program is, ostensibly, to prepare participants with job-related skills to increase their chances to succeed in the hiring process and in the workplace, but it seems that these programs are not helpful for Autistic people. While the participants who were in sheltered programs had the same hiring rate as those who were not, they were receiving lower wages and needing more accommodations and on-the-job supportive services than their Autistic peers.
The authors of the study note that "[it] is also possible that the sheltered employees were more difficult to place and train as a result of their workshop experiences, such as due to learned helplessness or developing work behaviors that might be acceptable in the sheltered setting but unacceptable in competitive positions."