When I founded Yes She Can in November 2013 I created the motto: Women with Autism. We work. With you. It was my vision that with proper training and support, women with autism could and should join the competitive workforce and work side by side with neuro-typical peers, whether it were shelving books, creating software code, or selling dolls. Back in the spring of 2014 I introduced the readers of Autism Spectrum News to our job skills development program run at Girl AGain boutique. We had only been open for two months so I had little actual experience in achieving my vision.
Now two and a half years later, Yes She Can has worked with 22 women with autism spectrum disorders and related social and learning disabilities; many also have intellectual disabilities.
Like their neuro-typical peers, our trainees truly desire to be independent. They want to work for money, and can – even if it is for just 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 transform from dependent students and social service “consumers” to confident problem-solving women.
Given their social and emotional challenges, the women we serve need a safe and 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,” as one trainee put it, while learning to stretch.
Typically at school, girls are the minority in co-ed special education classes, where the boys’ agenda can overwhelm the girls’ needs and interests. At our training program at Girl Again, not only do we focus on women’s issues but also our store caters to girls, so our trainees can relate to our customers. This gives them the opportunity to talk about the product with the little girls and their moms and grandmothers, and to assist the girls at the craft workshops where trainees can be leaders. Being the expert is a rare experience for our women.
Our trainees say they can be more relaxed without the concern of young men around them and focus on the skills. The job coaches can also be more direct in coaching on behaviors. So while our all-female training place may not reflect all workplaces, we do think it is a good learning environment.
The Women’s Card
As we know, neuro-typical women’s behavior and presentation is judged more harshly than men. This seems no different for women with autism: clothing, hair style and accessories, weight, table manners, topics of conversation, and posture and presence are held to a higher standard than men. A “quirky” even rude man with a stained shirt is acceptable to his work peers while an “odd” women with sloppy table manners who stumbles at chit-chat is rejected by her work peers. I have heard several women with ASD report that they believed they were fired because of a social faux pas that would be tolerated of men. There is significant pressure for women to “fit in” and that is not something most women with ASD can do and many don’t want to.
While my mission is not to fix this gender bias, we do work on these social skills in our program. That is where typical female peers so are important and helpful to our trainees so we would like to have more typical peer mentors volunteer with program.
Trainees at Girl AGain range in capabilities but they have some common characteristics: anxiety and fear of making a mistake. They wait to be told what to do and they expect help before exerting much effort. They lack resilience. On the other hand they want to please the manager and their job coach and they desire to do a good job. They know they have challenges and they want to overcome them. They want to be included without having to conform.
We do not know if these are uniquely women’s traits but would be delighted to participate in research that studies the differences between men and women with autism in the workplace.
Some of the work behaviors we focus on with our trainees include:
- Collaborating with peers and knowing when and how to seek input from colleagues – this is especially hard given the lack of theory of mind.
- When and how to take initiative – doing work without having to be told to do so, suggesting a solution to a problem, or offering help to someone else.
- Accepting critical feedback – and without falling apart, and then being able to take the corrective actions.
Some of the social behaviors we address include:
- Manager-staff conversations
- Appropriate “watercooler” topics
- Summer attire at work
The women in our training program are very interested in social relationships and are motivated to develop work skills in a collaborative setting. We have seen significant development in many of our participants since joining Yes She Can and our goal is to continue to help more young women with ASD.
Note: Yes She Can is seeking volunteer job coaches as well participants in an advisory council.
I am the mother of a 20 year old young woman with ASD. After a 30 year career in corporate marketing, I founded Yes She Can motivated by my experience that the best way to teach an individual with autism is through immersive learning and leveraging their passion. My daughter’s passions are Disney and American Girl dolls. Her career goal is to work at the American Girl store in the doll hair salon. During high school she had been in a career readiness program where she had several internships in addition to being a trainee at Girl AGain. She is currently enrolled in College Steps at Westchester Community College.