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Job/Career Development and Preparing the Workplace to Support an Employee with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Dr. Peter Gerhardt, President for the Organization of Autism Research

Doctor Peter Gerhardt is the President for the Organization for Autism Research. Dr. Gerhardt has over twenty-five years experience working with adolescents and adults with autism, in education, employment and community environments. Dr. Gerhardt will discuss job development and preparing the workplace for an individual with autism.

Can you define job development?

Yes, but I’d like to expand the definition of job development. Job development is the process by which we individualize the manner in which this particular individual acquires employment in the community that meets both their needs and the employers’ needs. And I think that’s an important part of it, that we’re not just looking at one consumer base, the one which is the person with autism spectrum disorder, we’re also looking at another consumer base which is the employer. I think we always have to be aware that if we don’t meet the needs of both, we’re not going to meet the needs of either. So that’s a critical part. The other part that I want to, and I sometimes get a little over involved in the language of our field, because I think sometimes our language is limited, I prefer to talk about career development as opposed to job development. Job development, just like when we say job placement, you know I was never placed in my life, I got jobs. So we need to talk about career development as opposed to just job placement and the fact is nobody’s first job was their ideal job. It allowed us then to just move on, and move on, and go up this ladder, and as we do this we get better and better and better in the development process looking at job match. What is it that this person really wants to do? It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum, or even if you’re on the spectrum or not, if you ask a typical seventeen year old, what do you want to do when you grow up? The answer is, I don’t know. Because you need life experience, you need opportunities. So if we frame it more in terms of career development with an eye on this job match, or goodness of fit, or whatever you want to call it, I think we come away with a much more productive take on how do we help the people not just gain employment, but maintain employment and continue in a career path across their life. Having said that, I do think that one of the first steps for every professional who works in career development is to understand not only their individual client, or participant, or consumer, I prefer person, but also, how does business work? One of the things that I talk about in our field in human services, if we have a problem, we form a committee, which then forms a sub committee, that then meets three times and just hopes the problem goes away and we sort of move on. Where in business if you have a problem, you fix the problem. So there’s sort of a clash of cultures sometimes and unless your job developer understands what business is all about, there’s going to be the continual clash of culture, which is not really going to benefit the person at all. I think it starts with this knowledge base, not just that this individual person, but also what does it mean to be an employee, what does it mean to be an employer? And in that way you can start to better liaise between the two groups, to the benefit of both.

Can you describe some key points of career development for an individual with autism?

The first key point is your first job. First of all I think everyone is employable. We have this employability criteria that you need to have X number of hours of on task behavior, and Y numbers hours of no problematic behavior, and this and that and all that sort of stuff. You know how you learn to have a job? By having a job. So, the fact is we’ve got to get more people out there, we’ve got to give more people opportunities, we have to find out what people really like, and I think that that’s the key step. And I think that’s our biggest stumbling block, that we sort of, the term is “creaming”, that we sort of take the ones that are going to be easiest ones to get jobs, and forget about all these others, when the fact is, the right person in the right job, it’s a beautiful thing if it’s done correctly. I think the first thing that we all have to do is to figure out, how do we get everybody out there in the community? The second thing in this development process is understanding what jobs are out there. Liaise with the business community, go to your Chamber of Commerce, go to Rotary Club meetings, talk to people, find out what jobs are out there. There are no collating jobs out there, they really don’t exist. And so every place in going to be a little different based upon their own economic issues. Ohio has a different economy, and different sections of Ohio have different economy’s, than Manhattan. So looking at what’s really available here and how do I now job carve, or work with the employer, and work with the individual, and work with the family to find out where we are going to meet the needs of all concerns. That’s critical, just teaching a set of skills independent of knowing what’s available, what’s out there, seems a pretty ridiculous strategy, but that’s what we tend to do. We tend to say oh, these are employability skills, not even knowing what jobs are out there, or what the person might like to do. The third component for real job development is you have to become a salesman. My father was a salesman all of his life and so I grow up swearing I was never going to be a salesman; and then fifteen years later I realized I was a salesman. What I was selling, was competence, I was selling ability, and when I first started to do job development back in nineteen eighty-three, I was horrible at it; I was horrible. And the reason was, was that I was selling disability, I was selling autism, and so going into employers and saying, gee I have this bunch of people who have this really significant developmental disability, and why don’t you consider hiding them, just didn’t’ translate into job openings oddly enough. But when I started going to employers and saying, listen do you have problems with high staff turnover? Do you have problems with low quality control? Do you have problems with people who don’t come back from their break? Do have problems with people who call in sick on Friday because they went out partying Thursday night? If you do, I really have got some potentially competent workers for you. And if you don’t want to talk to me about it that’s fine, but I am going to your competition down the street, because I know that I can benefit you. You’re not doing me a favor, I’m doing you a favor, I’m helping you out with some of the toughest to fill positions that you have. So let me help you make money for your company and we can all be very happy and go our separate ways and figure this all out. So once I shifted from that, now at least I got employers to listen. But that was hard for me because again shifting from human service to business head set. The last crucial part for me, in terms of employment development and career development, is really it’s not just about training the person on the spectrum; we need to look at making sure the employer understands what their responsibilities are relative to this particular person. Often times I have to work with employers to give me really direct and honest feedback, because they still have in their mind, oh well he has a disability so we’re going to let this slide because he has a disability. And then two weeks later is a little farther off, and it’s like well he has a disability it’s still O.K. And then by the time they finally tell me it’s so far off the mark that it’s almost irreparable. So I need them to give me the same feedback that they would give other employees, so that we can actually make sure that we are taking corrective actions, so that this person really can be as productive as they’re capable of being in an environment in which they want to be in, in a job that they like working at, to everybody’s benefit. Coworker training is essential, it really is critical because a job is not just the production part, it’s being a part of the social environment. It’s having lunch with coworkers, it’s interacting at different events, it’s going to the holiday party. If I have a group of coworkers who have never met a person with autism, I really have to sit down and not just explain autism, I rarely actually explain autism, I will explain this person with autism, how autism impacts their life, and how they can most effectively communicate with this person. What makes this person laugh, what type of music this person likes, all these sort of things. And I really just try to focus on the positive aspects. For the people that I’ve worked with who have an aspergers syndrome label, one of the things I work on it that they train the coworkers, they don’t need me there, but they still need to be able to convey that information in a way so that the community understands. So I think if we can do those things in the process, I think we have really set the stage for successful employment, whether it’s your first entry level job bagging groceries or stocking shelves, or you’re now working forty hours a week at a job carved position within Chase Manhattan Bank. It’s all the same process.

Once you’ve addressed employers and coworkers, what about preparing the physical environment?

Sometimes that can be the most idiosyncratic and challenging aspect of doing real career development. Because all of us have certain likes and dislikes, but if you’re not on the spectrum you also understand some of the social rules about how you can behave relative to our likes and dislikes. A small but significant group of people I’ve worked with had very strong music preferences, and the only job in the world that doesn’t have music playing in the background is the special education teacher. So every place else there’s going to be music playing in the background, and if you have this innate dislike of one type of music, or you really have a strong preference of other type of music, and they’re not playing that, that can become a real challenge. Sometimes even the lighting can be very distractive, large windows for some people can be very distractive, other times they can be a wonderful asset. So it’s all again looking at who this individual is and what do they like, and how to make sure that the environment itself is really going to support them to be able to do this. I think you can look at all jobs in the world along three parameters, and it’s social parameter, it’s a production parameter, and it’s an environmental parameter. And it goes along from easy to complex along three. Some jobs are relatively A social. When I grew up in New Jersey and I pumped gas for five years to get through college, a no social skill job (laughing). But one year I waited tables, a high social skills job, so we need to look on that continuum. The production part, is this a relatively straight forward easy, or does this job require a lot of decision making skills? And then the third part is this environment. Is this a job that this person really is going to like physically doing? Does it involve lifting? Do they have to sit down for long periods of time? Do they have to keep moving around? Do they have to respond to more than one supervisor? Is there music in the background; is it a loud environment? Is it too quiet for them? So all these things need to be taken into account as we really do this sort of physical setup in terms of supporting people in their career path.

Even in the best case individuals may need to make a career or job change. Should this be seen as a failure? Should this be expected?

Everybody changes jobs, and most people at one time or another; the change isn’t necessarily made by them. I would actually rather an employer decided to let someone go based upon the fact that they’ve given us open communication, we’ve tried to meet their needs, it’s not the right place for the person, so let him go in an open matter. And that way it’s still keeps the door open for somebody else to come in. Then if they feel they’re so sorry to let them go, I understand that, you’re a business but please consider hiring someone else in our place who might be able to do this job better. That’s just part of life, I don’t see that as a failure, I think the only time it’s a failure is when we fail to learn from it. And not just this person on the spectrum, but their support staff. What was it about this job that didn’t work out? And that should sort of guide me as I work with him or her to look for their next position, that well you know what, when working in a loud environment isn’t’ really the best for them, so we’ve got to find something that’s a little quieter. Working in an environment that has too much visual stimulation is not really the best for him, and we found that out this time. We should have known that beforehand, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So now we can look more into these other parameters. That’s why it’s called career development, we don’t get it right the first time, it’s all a developmental process, what did we learn from this and what did we learn from there? Mistakes are not bad; errors are not bad, as long as we learn from them. And if someone looses a job, we figure out how to get them the next one and do it better.

Where would people look to get additional information on career development?

First of all I would direct them to our website, the Organization for Autism Research, www.researchautism.org, and we have a free booklet on transition to adulthood, actually it’s more of a guidebook, it’s a sixty page book that is downloadable, or you can request a hardcopy on the website. But in addition people should check out the International Association for Persons in Supported Employment, www.apse.org, which is a great resource for career development and also for supporting job coaches, which is such a critical part of what we try to do. The Job Accommodation Network, www.jan.wvu.edu, is a good site for people to know, which talks about just what it’s name is, what accommodations are necessary to support people with different disability labels in different employment situations. So it’s a very useful resource. There are resources out there; people just have to access them.