aut_awareness_monthAutism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S. It is having a major impact on society, including child care, education, and teens and young adults in transition seeking employment. This is the first in a series of posts that will appear on this blog about this important topic.

By Zosia Zaks, M.S., M.Ed., CRC

 Employment involves more than just earning money to survive. Employment is also about contributing to society. Employment is how a person senses his or her dignity. What are the best ways to support adults on the autism spectrum who want to work?

 Self-Regulation: A Cornerstone Skill

Self-regulation is a cornerstone skill that is often overlooked. An individual who over-reacts at work is in danger of being fired. Clients of any age can use a 5-Point Scale to modulate the “amount” of an emotion, and match themselves to socially appropriate responses – directly increasing adaptive behavior. These 5-Point Scales can be tailored to the individual’s cognitive level with words, pictures, colors, or symbols.

A sample scale could use colors and text, but it could also utilize images or numbers. Scales can include specific instructions such as, “Reece will call his job coach.”

Does your client have difficulty handling criticism? Struggle when supplies are low? Have a meltdown if the vending machine is out of corn chips? Put it on the scale!

Clients can also use scales to communicate without relying on nonverbal communication signals such as facial expressions. Your client may be terrified, and yet may not “look” scared or he or she isn’t “acting” frightened. If the individual can point to a Level 5 on a Scared Scale, you can adjust your approach accordingly with better results.

 * Communication strategies – Elron carries an index card with a red stripe on one side and a green stripe on the other. Elron shows his boss the red stripe if he does not understand the instructions, and he then switches to visual instructions. Conversely, if Elron is ready to proceed, he shows his green stripe. Before this system was implemented, Elron would rip packing slips when frustrated and had been deemed “unemployable,” but now he is a valued employee.

Systems like Elron’s are easy to implement. Successful communication at work also involves the context of the situation. Unspoken and unwritten rules of social communication are referred to as the Hidden Curriculum. Social narratives – in formats that can range from a cartoon, chart, or even a small book – are a great tool for introducing social nuances and reinforcing positive skills that can impact the work environment. Use stick figures and leave out distracting details. Tailor narratives to the client’s literacy level and developmental understanding.

 * Sensory planning – Adults with autism can be bothered by noises, smells, and lights that don’t impact others. Someone can even have sensory issues with the texture of the carpet, the clashing colors of interior décor, the motion of a wheeled chair, or the banging of a roof fan.

Jessie proudly completed a 16-week food service training course. Upon graduating, she got a job at a restaurant in the mall. Jessie walked out minutes into her first shift, stating that the restaurant noises and smells were excruciating. She was deemed unsuited for a career in food service as a result.

But perhaps Jessie could have worked in a quiet tea shop or “prepped” a restaurant before opening time. If her sensory issues had been considered, Jessie could have planned around her challenges.

 Clients should be provided with sensory system education. Occupational therapists can assess and address sensory issues, too. Strategies such as a perfume-free workplace qualify as reasonable accommodations. With proper planning, sensory issues do not need to be a barrier to work success.

Zosia’s complete article appears in the April 2013 issue of Job Training and Placement Report. For a FREE sample, visit the “Job Training Professionals” tab at www.impact-publications.com  

Important resource:  Autism Society www.autism-society.org

Zosia Zaks, M.S., M.Ed., works as a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC). He writes and speaks about disability issues and teaches courses on autism at Towson University. He served on the Maryland Commission on Autism from 2009 – 2012; is currently a member of the Maryland State Rehabilitation Council; and continues to serve on the boards or advisory councils of several local and national autism organizations including the PSA Advisory Council of the Autism Society. As a professional, a self-advocate, and the parent of two children on the autism spectrum, Mr. Zaks infuses his work with multiple perspectives, always seeking ways to foster inclusion.