Like their neurotypical peers, young women with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) truly desire to be independent. To seek her potential and independence, most women with autism need to work for money, even if it is for 15 hours a week. Women transitioning from school to adulthood need to stretch, take risks, try and possibly stumble, and learn how to recover. They need to discover their inner strength and build resilience. They need to transform from dependent students and social service “consumers” to confident problem-solving women. But given their social and emotional challenges, they need a supportive environment to begin their exploration of their capabilities. They also need an environment where they can connect with other women who share their challenges – where they can “be themselves” while learning to stretch. They need a workplace where they have interest, if not passion for what they are doing to motivate them to keep trying.
Yes She Can, a White Plains, NY-based non-profit dedicated to helping young women with autism develop job skills, opened Girl AGain, a resale boutique for American Girl dolls in February 2014. We have served 16 women so far, and we have capacity for more trainees.
Many of our young women who are in the training program offered by Yes She Can had no idea what is required to be a good employee. They need a training approach that educates them about what is necessary to be a good employee and helps them develop those traits so they can increase their chances of finding and keeping a job. The following traits frequently show up on lists describing characteristics of successful people: responsible and motivated, strong communicators, conscientious, and flexible. This list highlights why people on the spectrum, in particular, have difficulty obtaining and sustaining employment. The characteristics that are necessary are often those that they struggle with the most.
Adaptable and Flexible
Employees need to recognize priorities, be able to shift from one task to another as priorities change (set by manager or demand by customer). As we know, “go-with-the-flow” is especially challenging for people with autism, who tend to be ridged and rule-bound.
Recently, one of our most capable trainees was completely focused on her data entry work in the store and did not notice that customers had entered the store. She did not realize that customers are the priority and that data entry work can wait. She could not sift her attention to the customers because she was worried she would lose her place in Quick Books. After being coached she was able to assist the customer in selecting a doll to purchase (which she usually loves) but was not able to give the customer her full enthusiastic attention that is typical because her mind was on her data work. This is something we will continue to practice with her, even creating artificial interruptions.
Another trainee was using an iPad to do research but the iPad was needed to conduct a customer transaction (our usual device for transactions had a malfunction). That trainee could not relinquish the iPad because she said she was not done with her work. When she was told that the customer transaction was the priority she still resisted. So two problems: she refused a request from the manager and she could not adjust, nearly having an outburst.
While we often reward focus and staying on task it can be confusing to our trainees when we say, “Well, usually but not always” and have them understand the exceptions and when to shift focus. Staying on task is great, but learning to shift is just as important. The shifting demand needs to come from an authority, not only self-determined.
Motivation and Perseverance
No matter how routine a job is designed to be there are bound to be situations that need new solutions. Too often our trainees ask for assistance before they have put in the effort to find a solution on their own. They don’t understand that they are responsible for their work. This behavior will undermine them in their job. No manager expects to do her employee’s work (where’s the value add?). We encourage our trainees to turn to a peer for support before asking the supervisor for help. And even more important is the ability to think through the situation and propose a few possible solutions so that the manager can choose between two options. That is providing value, but it requires effort. When an employee is motivated to be successful because of her interest in the work, she is more likely to persevere when called upon to take responsibility.
Many of our trainees seem to be conditioned to expect someone else to figure things out for them. This has been referred to as “learned helplessness.” They are afraid to make a mistake so would rather ask for help before trying.
On the other hand some trainees have been taught to work so independently that they do not seek advice and feedback in a collaborative way. They make some decisions that are inappropriate, but feel they must be doing the right thing because they are being “independent.” Collaboration and consent are not the opposite of independence. Understanding the balance between working independently and collaborating with peers and managers is another challenge for our trainees with autism.
Where do people learn how to collaborate, be responsible, negotiate, accept feedback and push through to completion? One important opportunity to gain these skills is in group projects at school. In general education students are expected to work in teams even in elementary school. Students learn to divide up assignments, be responsible for their portion, and yet be accountable for the whole project. They share ideas, practice negotiating, receive feedback from their team mates and adjust. During my daughter’s school career in inclusion programs she was never included in those week long or month long team assignments. By third grade she no longer was involved in team sports. And the Girl Scout troop would not accept her. So she never had the opportunity to develop the skill of teaming which is so necessary in the work world.
Schools need to enable our special education students to gain these critical workplace behaviors by having them work on projects with peers. Let them struggle, depend on each other and learn to persevere.
Good communication skills are essential at work to accomplish assignments and assist customers. At Girl AGain we work on appropriate workplace social interactions, including the different ways we communicate with peers, managers, and customers.
Generally, women are expected to be more skilled in social behaviors then men. Women with moderate to high functioning autism often initially present as more competent than they really are in the social realm. When a woman with ASD behaves inappropriately, she is compared to a neurotypical woman and is more likely to be penalized than either a typical man or a man with ASD.
Recently a trainee was working at one of our customer workshops (Doll Hair Do’s and Don’ts) and in front of all the 8 year old customers she was chatting with a peer about all her accommodations she needed at school. This would be a fine discussion over lunch with her peer, if she wanted to disclose her disability, but inappropriate not only at the work site but in front of customers. She thought she was being “social” but context is everything. In her case, I was able to call her name and shake my head and she picked up that it was time to stop the chatter.
Another trainee was conducting research on the web for a doll outfit and when frustrated she would yell out my name, demanding that I come over to her to help her. While as a manager I am friendly to her, we are not friends. She needs to learn that an employee can’t treat the manager in a disrespectful way, how to more appropriately get the attention of the supervisor. Learning to differentiate styles of communication based on roles is a challenge for our trainees.
People with ASD have sensory, emotional and attention regulation issues that need to be considered when choosing appropriate work place environments. Our trainees at Girl AGain boutique must develop coping mechanisms to manage their bodies and emotions on the job. This is something that each worker needs insight into and she must develop ways of coping to maximize her work productivity and minimize her emotional issues effecting her performance.
In addition, organizational and attentional weaknesses can impede her learning and productivity on the job. This can’t be taught in an artificial setting. It needs to be taught in an authentic business environment where the individual has to learn to deal with realistic challenges, in an environment where all things cannot be controlled.
Many of our trainees can become overwhelmed by noises, crowds, and unpredictable movements. When three families with excited little girls show up at the store, some trainees can’t cope. They know to retreat to the “cozy corner,” put on their ear buds and listen to music. As long as this plan has been established in advance with the manager, it is acceptable. While we want to avoid melt downs we also want to help the trainee to build up tolerance and resilience to their stressors.
Managers in conventional businesses will need to be taught how to get the most productivity from an employee with autism, and in appreciating the value the employee can bring to the job be willing to accept unconventional behaviors and coping strategies of autistic employees.
Business managers do not want to increase expenses by hiring employees unless that incremental investment has a positive return. So the employee needs to add value. Employees need to be self-sufficient, take work load off of the manager or other employees, solve problems, and create more opportunities for revenue.
We want employers to see the value that our ASD candidates can bring to the business but we also want the employer to accommodate our candidates and even reconsider how a job is defined in an organization.
One way for a person to add value to the business is to perform a portion of a job so efficiently that it makes sense for the business to carve out that part of the job across the organization and bundle it to make a new position, then freeing up the employees who had that task as their responsibility to now perform other mission critical tasks.
There are many organizations and family initiatives that are now focused on helping young adults with autism enter the workforce. Yes She Can is seeking to collaborate with other organizations to improve employment outcomes.