Yes She Can provides a job skills training program for young women with autism and related social and learning disabilities. The program is implemented at Girl AGain boutique where clinical professionals and business managers coach trainees in all aspects of running the business. It has been a fundamental component of the program to have trainees working in the retail store, engaging with each other and with customers.
On March 3rd, 2020, the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed just 3 miles away from our program in Westchester County, NY. A week later our management team began making plans for a virtual experience. It wasn’t a question of whether we would shift to an on-line job skills training program but how. Nine weeks into making that shift, the Yes She Can’s job skills development program has actively engaged all trainees in coaching sessions and meaningful skill development. All of our previously enrolled trainees remained with the program, and now new trainees have joined the program while others are in the referral process to begin during the summer session.
The plan to provide an on-going, consistent program to our trainees has evolved during the 9 weeks we have been training on a remote basis. Within 1 week of shutting down the Girl AGain store site, our first iteration of the training program had transferred to a remote platform and was focused on providing structure, on-going social connections and emotional support during these uncertain times – to both the young women we serve and their families. A shut down of life as we knew it was both unfathomable and worrisome as we considered the impact of the pandemic on the lives of our trainees, their families and staff.
In a recent podcast, Doreen Marshall, PhD., Vice President of Programs with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reiterated the importance of taking care of the basics during traumatic periods of time. Because all but one of our trainees live at home with their families, we knew that basic shelter and support was not in question. While there were and continue to be clear stressors, none of our trainees’ families would be in such financial distress so as to not be able to feed themselves. Basic life necessities would be provided.
Transferring the Yes She Can training program to a remote platform required an assessment of the technology available to each trainee in her home. There was a distribution of our Chrome Books to those who needed the equipment to successfully participate. There was an initial rush to download and teach ourselves how to use the needed software and subsequently teach the trainees and their parents. The coaches often felt just barely a step ahead of our trainees.
We anticipated certain autism-specific responses to the current health crisis and planned around those concerns. We expected that our trainees would be stressed by the changes to their routines. We expected there would be a range of understanding about the pandemic, of anxiety-based responses, as well as expression of their fears and concerns. Therefore, our initial focus was to provide more emotional support rather than coaching job skills. Our work-from-home plan initially included 2 weekly group meetings where trainees were encouraged to share their concerns verbally or via the chat function on Zoom with each other and with the coaches. We emphasized developing daily routines, the need to continue to practice good self-care and maintain connections. These needs correspond with our program goals to improve workplace social skills, to practice self-care including good physical care and hygiene, emotional regulation and self-advocacy.
During the twice weekly group meetings, we scheduled time “just to talk” (surprisingly requested by the trainees), to do enjoyable and low stress activities together including art projects and virtual tours, producing a list of recommended shows available on-line, offering calming, social connections and providing structure. We added a weekly 30-minute yoga class to support both the trainees and staff and provided an avenue to practice coping and calming strategies for everyone.
When we ran our program at Girl AGain, we had up to 4 trainees working together, with two coaches for 3-hour training sessions. It was clear very quickly that 3-hour coaching sessions would not be practical or effective on a remote platform. We quickly switched to 1.5-hour coaching sessions with well thought-out dyads based on trainee’s skill level, interests and personality. Given the shorter but more intensive coaching sessions, the coaches needed to change the way information was chunked and adjust expectations about the pace of skill development and acquisition.
Our initial experience indicated that trainees’ increased anxiety actually interfered with their ability to recall processes they had learned and mastered while on-site. Generalizing knowledge from the Yes She Can training setting at the store to their home setting was challenging for trainees, requiring re-teaching or prompting of skills. For those whose thinking patterns include negative self-talk, we saw an initial spike in statements like, “I can’t do this,” “what am I doing wrong,” “am I the only one who can’t get on-line?” Some of the business processes had to change which required trainees to be more flexible and willing to re-think how to complete particular tasks differently. Not surprisingly, it proved to be a very challenging time for both trainees and staff.
Shifting the training program on-line also required us to take into consideration the demands placed on Yes She Can coaches and staff. In addition to the generalized anxiety people experienced early in March, like many others, our staff have personal demands of caring for and now home-schooling young children, spouses and/or older family members. It was important to acknowledge the stressors staff were dealing with and to remain as flexible as possible to support their needs.
However, over the past 2 months, Yes She Can staff has observed trainees settling into a new norm, albeit not without ongoing challenges. The initial learning curve around technology has subsided and clearer instructional processes have emerged. Coaches encouraged trainees to use calendars to enhance their independent functioning, but for some it is not enough. Our weekly email outlining the weekly schedule of small and larger group meetings provide necessary reminders and help trainees to plan their week and maintain a routine. We are impressed to see that trainees have been able to transfer skills to a home-based work site and that trainees are learning and using new business processes with more ease. Their sense of mastery is returning, although an internet or zoom glitch can easily cause everyone’s frustration levels to shoot up.
Despite these difficult times, there are nuggets of positive progress and unexpected gains. We have observed some advantages to video coaching, especially in content delivery. Over the past 9 weeks, we have made revisions to the program and have taken opportunities to add curriculum content including teaching marketing strategies and tactics, career exploration and job search skills.
Our trainees are understanding the rational behind needing to shift our retail store to a positive on-line shopping experience and are learning new skills to support making that happen. They are thinking through their own recommendations, synthesizing their research and past experience. As the trainees are now more able to focus on the business needs, their group discussions have turned to generating creative marketing ideas rather than perseverating on the health crisis. Trainees challenged by interpersonal connections and communication are finding the experience of learning from home, less stressful and in fact are thriving using other written communication tools. Some trainees are developing stronger bonds with each other and are learning new ways to support each other. Other trainees are showing signs of improved self-advocacy.
While we recognize the priority of health and safety and the significant challenges other service providers have faced in this current pandemic, we are pleased to be able to provide continuity and meaningful learning opportunities in a virtual setting for the autism community. Yes She Can!
Lesli Cattan, LCSW, is Director of Training Programs at Yes She Can Inc., based in White Plains, NY. For further information about the Yes She Can training program, contact Lesli at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.yesshecaninc.org.
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