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The Most Challenging Aspect of a Job is Keeping it: The Importance of Flexibility in the Workplace

October 28, 2010 5 comments

Rebecca Malnisky is the Executive Director, Ken’s Krew Inc., an organization that helps individuals with autism function at their highest levels in jobs at The Home Depot and CVS Caremark pharmacies.

It you ask any of the 125 Ken’s Krew, Inc (KKI) participants currently working in The Home Depot or CVS Pharmacy, “What is the most challenging part of your job?”, you might get any range of responses, from dealing with difficult customer questions, having hours cut during a slow season, or becoming familiar with where all the products are in the store.  If you ask me what the most challenging piece of a job is for our participants, I would say, keeping it.  When it comes to working in retail, the most important characteristic of a successful worker is flexibility, a word that is often not synonymous with the work skills of an individual on the autism spectrum.  Nevertheless, with appropriate support, many of our young adults diagnosed with autism are rising to the occasion and demonstrating an impressive ability to adapt based on a strong desire to obtain and maintain employment.

In today’s difficult job market, our participants are competing for job with college graduates and individuals that have years of retail experience.   KKI vocational trainers are dealing with this by ensuring that all of our candidates understand that every employee needs to flexible.  Are you open to working after 1pm?  Are you willing to work in a department that you are not familiar with?  Do you have a desire to learn how to use new equipment, like a cardboard bailer?

Additionally, especially within The Home Depot, stores can be loud, distracting, and ever changing.  Again, not exactly characteristics that make for a strong job match when job developing for an individual diagnosed with autism.  However, KKI has trained several young adults who were initially characterized on their KKI applications as “structured” and “rigid”, who have been extremely successful on the job, making incredible contributions to the productivity and corporate culture at their respective stores.

For example, take Thomas Brown, who just earned his second “Homer Badge” for exceptional customer service.  During training, Thomas stated that he was very intimidated by the uncertainty of what a customer might ask and whether or not he would be able to supply the customer with an adequate response.  As a result, a KKI vocational trainer focused a significant amount of time on decreasing Thomas’ frustration level and increasing his self-confidence.  Thomas and his job coach role played, so that Thomas could learn to say “I’m not sure.  I’m in training, but let me get someone to help you” dozens of times during each shift.  Additionally, Thomas’ vocational trainer offered generous praise, practiced frequent customer service scenarios and ensured that Thomas identified a “buddy” within his department during each shift.

Besides discussing the inevitably ever changing environment of retail, vocational trainers provide KKI participants with a strong training foundation at The Home Depot and CVS Pharmacy.  After three months of side-by-side 100% job coaching from a KKI vocational trainer, our participants have the self confidence and product knowledge to work independently in these environments.  To address areas that might require development, KKI vocational trainers may develop a picture book, practice role plays countless times, devise a check list of task or attend online computer trainings with the young adult.

Without a doubt, job flexibility and ability to adapt to a changing environment are extremely important in busy, competitive job settings, such as The Home Depot and CVS Pharmacies.  Fortunately, our corporate partners make accommodations for our young adults, including providing consistent work schedules during intensive training, and allowing our job coaches to conduct job sampling across various departments.

While it is accepted in the field that structured environments serve as preferred work settings for individuals on the autism spectrum, I believe that with appropriate support, certain individuals diagnosed with autism can be successful in busy retail environments.  By building upon strengths, devising strategies that help support areas of development, and encouraging participants to be flexible, even the most challenging jobs can serve as good job matches for individuals diagnosed with autism.

Family Services provides resources and information. If you have a question, contact the Autism Response Team today. If you’re concerned that your child may be affected with autism or if you’ve received a diagnosis, browse the Tools for Families section, where you’ll find our 100 Day Kit, and the Autism Video Glossary. If you’d like to do a quick search for service providers near you, selectFind a Local Resource and browse the Resource Guide.

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