One of the biggest hurdles that adolescents and young adults on the ASD or LD Spectrum face is having a reversed sleep schedule where they stay awake at night (often playing video games or surfing the internet) and sleeping during the day. This is especially so if students are living independently for the first time. No one is around to tell them to “go to bed.”
This impacts their work lives whether it’s volunteering, interning, or doing a paid job. Even if they make it to work on time, they may lack energy and even nod off because they are tired and/or sleep deprived.
Meet Melanie. Melanie was very bright and enthusiastic about her internship working with animals. Soon after she started her internship, her supervisor noticed that when Melanie sat down during slow times, she would close her eyes for what she thought was a moment and then fall fast asleep. It was my job to figure out how to best help her stay awake at work. I came up with some strategies so Melanie and others like her, who were continually “awake challenged,” could do their jobs without falling asleep on the job or nodding off.
Suggested Strategies for “Awake Challenged” Students
Help your “awake challenged” students realistically decide how many hours of sleep each one will need each night and what time he/she needs to wake up by in order to get ready and “make it to work on time.” Based on that information, decide (together) on a good bedtime and get a promise (in writing if you can) that he or she will try to stick to it.
Students might ask a roommate or their roommates to support the fact that he or she will be going to bed at this time each night. Students like Melanie can also use a simple spreadsheet and record how many hours per night they sleep, as well as the time they went to bed and got up in the morning. As patterns develop you can further aid students with positive reinforcement or extra help and encouragement.
Encourage students to develop a wind-down routine. A hot drink, reading for half an hour and then turning off the light, having a hot shower or relaxing bath, or doing some gentle yoga or stretching right before bed will set the scene for a solid night’s sleep.
Ask the student to set an alarm or multiple alarms to help her/him remember when it is time to go to bed and time wake up.
Have the “awake challenged” young person bring healthy snacks and drinks to work each day and take occasional breaks so he/she can eat, hydrate, and boost energy levels. The student should not develop an overdependence on caffeine or energy drinks to keep awake. Instead encourage him/her to keep a food or energy journal to learn more about his or her daily patterns.
Most of my students have “Executive Function” challenges that impact them on the job. Ken, one of my favorite students, was severely “punctually challenged” due to “EF” issues.
Ken had his Associate’s degree and several certifications. He was very bright and had a great sense of humor. Ken often showed up at my office 15 minutes before he was supposed to be at work and let me know he didn’t have enough gas to get to his internship. It turns out he liked to drive around over the weekend and then realized his car was on empty just as he was about to leave for work on Monday morning.
To make matters worse, Ken did not carry his debit card with him and would have to go to into the nearest bank to withdraw money from his checking account to put gas in his car. He knew by that point that he would be late for work. Ken would then need to contact his internship supervisor again and explain that he was going to be late.
I helped Ken by working on his organizational and planning skills. We made evening and morning checklists to address everything that needed to be done (including checking the gas tank the night before) so that he allowed time to buy gas in the morning, if he needed it. We put this in the form of a reproducible checklist that he would fill out each night.
We decided that each night he needed to: Check the car for gas, lay out work clothes, shower and shave, make a lunch, charge his cell phone, and make sure that his keys and backpack were by the front door.
It was a long slow process until Ken finally saw this routine’s value. By preparing the night before, he could identify if he needed to plan extra time in the morning to address any glitches or things that would make him late for work.
Ken is an example of a student who had the education and experience to succeed but didn’t have the “EF” skills in place to make sure he had gas or plan ahead for getting gas.
Repetition and routine turned out to be the key in helping Ken. Over time with repetition, repetition, repetition, and occasional nagging from me, this young man-made wonderful strides in his punctuality. Ken now has worked nearly full-time for the same company for a number of years.
“Underground Thursday” Challenged
What is “Underground Thursday” do you ask? It could really fall on any day of the week – but for Zach, his “underground” day would always be a Thursday. He used up so much effort and energy to get through his Monday to Wednesday work days that he would call in “sick” almost every Thursday or every other Thursday. It was as predictable as the tides.
Zach and I had many one-on-one chats about this. I finally determined that Zach lacked the key skill of “perseverance” for the times when he was feeling overwhelmed, anxious, depressed, or tired. Instead of hanging in there and getting himself to work on Thursdays, he’d give up and call in “sick.”
Zach was working toward his A.S. in Information Technology and was very bright. When he was at his internship, he did a good job. But as Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” Here is how I helped Zach.
Strategies to Help “Underground Thursday Challenged” Zach
I had him turn in a copy of his internship timesheet to me every week or every two weeks so we could review work attendance and identify any reoccurring patterns. This allowed me to show him in black and white, that he was missing work on most Thursdays.
In addition to having Zach set multiple alarms to get up on Thursdays as an audio clue, we looked at his underlying problem of anxiety and depression and realized that Zach’s stress was being dealt with by avoidance.
He also told me that he had trouble remembering to take his medications for anxiety and depression when he was feeling anxious or depressed. We looked at this pattern as well. Having Zach verify with me that he had taken his medication daily (via a quick check-in, text, or email) also helped.
We set up a sleep routine (that he would track and chart) and made getting a good night’s sleep another self-help priority.
We asked his supervisor at work if Zach could start an hour later in the morning or stay an hour later in the afternoon. Zach was one of those people who just need a little extra time in the mornings. Being able to start his a job at 10 am instead of 8 am or 9 am allowed Zach to be on time and the accommodation was motivation to stop calling in sick half way through the work week.
At one point we considered having Zach work a part-time job. Although I would love for every young adult to maintain a full-time job (whether volunteer, internship, or paid), I would rather see a student work part-time 20-30 hours per week and be successful than try to unsuccessfully maintain a full-time job.
This article was excerpted from Chapter 5, Autism and Learning Differences (An Active Learning Teaching Toolkit), by Dr. Michael McManmon, EdD, and Francine Britton, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London 2015.
Jennifer Kolarik serves as the Lead Head Career Coordinator at The College Internship Program (www.cipworldwide.org). CIP is a comprehensive program serving teens and young adults with Asperger’s, Autism and other Learning Differences. CIP offers year-round and summer programs at six locations nationwide.