BJ is a young man who is affiliated with Ken’s Krew, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, is to provide vocational training and job placement services to young adults with intellectual and learning disabilities who are transitioning into the workforce.
My name is B.J. Ivey I am 29 years old and have been with the home depot and Ken’s Krew for 9 years you can tell how old I am by how many years I have been working at the home depot. I was first introduced to Ken’s Krew back in 2001-2002 when it was still called Ken’s Kids I was at CAT Pickering trying to take some more machine shop training that was the tech area that I was in when I was in 9th grade. But it didn’t work out the teacher quit 5 days before the start of school. So I tried carpentry but I wasn’t good so then I went to electronics and that fit me well as I was doing my extra learning I tried to get help with going to college and there was one in Vermont that was geared towards kids with learning disabilities but they said that I didn’t have the kind they mostly teach with which was dyslexia. I didn’t know what to do so one of the teachers found Ken’s Krew and called them up and that’s how I met Debbie I am working at the Frazer home depot as the pro loader meaning I help out with the contractors mostly loading cement, drywall, and lumber. I was chosen as a co captain for the project at a school for kids like me it felt good to be a leader and while I was there I saw my old boss our project was to build a deer fence around the green house we put in posts filled them with cement and then wrapped deer block ours was probably the longest project because while we were working almost everyone else was done and yes I had fun working with everyone. While I am working at the home depot I hope to try and become an anime writer I have some stories written out and I want to find a producer that will help me I am saying this because when I went to a school for the disabled there was a kid who owned his own business I was surprised by that thinking his type of disability would hold him back. I am enjoying working at the home depot and I might be there for a while longer.
This is a guest blog post from Autism Speaks Science Board member John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Be Different: Adventured of a Free-Range Aspergian.
Should we change, or should others change for us? Should workplaces change for us?
We (by we, I mean anyone) must be able to present ourselves in such a way that the people we engage think we are nice/interesting/capable or whatever they need to continue the interaction. If we fail to do that, we will not move forward in a relationship with that person. That may mean we don’t make a friend, or we don’t get a job, or we don’t get admitted to a school. Whatever it is, it’s a lost opportunity.
Obviously no one can succeed with every engagement of another person, but each of us must look at our total tries, and our success rate. If the success rate is low, we have to ask ourselves why.
In my last post, I talked briefly about Asperger people who fail to get jobs for whatever reason, and then allege discrimination. Some neurodiversity voices ask for an end to that discrimination, and for greater acceptance.
I have asked for greater acceptance myself. I think that is a noble goal, but not one we will see attained anytime soon. When I look at how I was treated in childhood, how my 21-year old son grew up, and what I see today I see some change but not much. It leads me to wonder how much acceptance and accommodation we might reasonably expect.
I think what happens is that the philosophical desire for more broadminded treatment flies in the face of evolutionary human development. We have thousands of years of experience that tells us a person acting a certain way is a bad person; a threat. We are conditioned to reject people who exhibit those behaviors. What arethose behaviors, you ask? There is no single, simple answer. We just seem to be programmed to pick up certain unspoken cues and interpret them that way.
The problem folks like me have is that our Asperger’s causes us to exhibit innocent but non standard behaviors that get interpreted as bad. I’ve written on this before, urging people to think twice when a person says or does something unexpected. I think that works in some situations, especially with people who are exposed to kids with differences or AS in the family. For the great majority of people, though, the message does not get through or it gets ignored.
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.
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We thought our dreams had come true when our 22-year old son with autism landed a job as a custodian at an Army base just outside of Washington, D.C . Full health benefits, paid vacation, and a starchy new uniform – yahoo! With his intense focus on repetitive tasks and military trivia, he had the makings for a model worker, but our euphoria didn’t last long. After a rocky start, six weeks into it a Human Resources rep called me into her office to say my son was becoming increasingly unreachable, “a pain the neck” for his supervisors to deal with. As a square peg in the round hole of a straitlaced military base, with little or no interest in office politics, he was making for an inscrutable co-worker. What to do?
Here’s the surprise: instead of tossing my kid out, they invited me in to a well-attended managers’ meeting to talk about how to manage autism in the workplace – a first for this forward-thinking service provider company. Topic A: As an employer of people with physical and intellectual disabilities, how likely were they to see an increase of clients with autism in the coming years?
With more than 730,000 cases of children currently diagnosed with autism in the U.S., I assured them they could expect many more resumés like my son’s to be crossing their desks, and soon. Then someone suggested that perhaps the more relevant question is – if an employee who has autism is missing the piece of the puzzle that engages in typical social discourse, how can a workplace manager bring this new staffer into the fold?
Here’s how I look at it:
1. Start by becoming a noticer. When you see any of these behaviors – the lack of eye contact, the missed social cues, the wrong body language, the impulsivity, the flat affect, or the nervous tic-ing – consider that instead of just being rude or behaving inappropriately, this person may be somewhere on the autism spectrum, and inherently challenged by social expectations.
2. Use concrete language, not abstract images. Don’t talk so much when giving out instructions. People on the autism spectrum are very often visual learners and tend to tune out complicated directions – they frequently learn by watching and doing a task – so don’t be a chatterbox. Because, trust me, at this point the window has closed and he is no longer listening to you. Instead, be blunt. Say the thing you need to say simply and clearly. Then ask him to look you in the eye, (very important), and have him repeat it back to you. If he still doesn’t get it, maybe send him a text message or create a check list to read and keep for reference. Then shadow him. Stand back, watch, and let him monitor his own progress. Repeat as needed.
3. Prepare to have your feathers ruffled and then learn how to shake it off. For example, you might notice my newly employed son steps through that door ahead of you and lets it slam in your face, but this is not intentional or mean-spirited. Instead, remind yourself that being inwardly focused is a big part of what autism is. Don’t take it personally, and learn to let it go. This sounds so much easier to do … time after time … than it actually is. On the other hand, gentle reinforcers of acceptable behavior are always a good idea. Little things, like “Could you get the door for me, David? Now hold it for me until I get all the way through. That’s it!”
4. Lighten up: everyone benefits from a good sense of humor. After wrapping up David’s first week of work, he came upon his supervisor in the parking lot and said, “I’m off the clock now so you can’t boss me around.” The supervisor was initially shocked at David’s impromptu comment, but fortunately, he had a sense of humor. This kind soul didn’t exactly understand it, but he got it, and defused the situation with a good-natured belly laugh.
5. Respect the Two-Foot Rule: Give him room to breathe. Providing two feet of personal space around someone with ASD may be paramount for his peace of mind. So don’t add stress to a situation by imposing your physical self into the conversation. Many people with autism are tactilely defensive with acutely heightened senses and miserably uncomfortable when stuck in small spaces or subjected to loud noises. A handshake is fine but you do not want to goose this young man, or poke, or hug him – I know my son would react to that like he’d been snake-bit. Instead, make a standard handshake part of your daily routine with this individual, so that he knows it’s coming and doesn’t perceive it as an assault. All these things would come out if he could tell his own story, but chances are your new employee is a consistent loner, so he probably never will.
6. Pass it on: make a conscious effort to raise awareness about ASD during staff meetings. As managers of these workers, you will face many of the same problems we families do. Like us, you will have a few triumphs and plenty more setbacks. Be aware that the enigmatic part of autism is also going to create frustration in your staff’s well-meaning efforts to get through to him. Make sure all supervisors of employees who have autism understand that the disability simply is what it is—and nothing more. And yes, there will be times when you find yourself thinking this guy is a jerk or a pain in the neck, but remember to take yourself out of the equation – because (and take it from a someone who really knows) it’s not about you. Then, pat yourself on the back because – as every parent of an autistic child knows – you’ve earned it.
This “In Their Own Words” essay is written by Glen Finland. Glen is the author of Next Stop, a memoir about raising her son, who has autism, to adulthood and learning to let go, forthcoming from Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam in early 2011. Read another blog post by her – In Their Own Words: What Happens When I Am No Longer Here?
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