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

Doctor Peter Gerhardt is the President for the Organization of 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 the art of Job Coaching.

What is Job Coaching?

Job coaching is the professional practice of supporting an individual with a specific disability; it doesn’t necessarily have to be autism spectrum disorder, to be a competent and socially included proficient employee.

In terms of an individual with autism what are the qualities that you might look for in a person that will be filling the position of job coach?

There are a number of qualities that I look for. One is this ability to think on their feet, the ability to shift at any given moment. Because you’re out there in the community and you’re not within the four walls of the classroom. The things that may impact your employee, the person that you are responsible for for coaching are going to change, not just on a day to day basis, but sometimes on a moment by moment basis. You have to be adapt enough to make those shifts as you go along. I can teach technical proficiency, I can teach you how to prompt, I can teach you how to reinforce, I can teach you how to organize the environment, but I generally can’t teach you how to know when to do it in any given moment. That has to be something that you can acquire based on experience so that’s a critical part of it. I also try to look for people who in my assessment are able to be self-reinforced. Because a job coach is a pretty solitary assignment, you’re not really part of the workforce in the environment where you are coaching. Your job is to physically, and emotionally, and instructionally distance yourself from the person as much as possible, so you sort of become this liaison island between these two groups of people. So you need to take pride and reinforce yourself for being able to do that by yourself, as opposed to wanting fifteen colleges around saying good job, good job, because it doesn’t happen in job coaching. You need to be reinforced by the work itself. When I talked about job development and we looked at career match, job coaching has to have career match, you have to want to do this, otherwise it’s just not going to work out. The last thing is I do want some enthusiasm, I want some excitement, somebody that’s going to take it just because it’s a job, that’s not what I want. Because you’ve got to be up for this job, this is a tough, tough job, not just anybody can be a job coach. I think it takes a very, very special person to be able to navigate the multiple worlds that you encounter, supporting this person with autism, working with your agency back home, working with the employer, working with coworkers, supporting this person during lunchtime without actually being part of the lunchtime. All those things that fall into it, it’s a pretty specialized career path for a pretty special person.

In terms of preparing the individual to be a job coach what kind of experiences, information, training, would this person need in order to be an effective job coach?

Much of the training that I give, working with job coaches historically, is hands on training. Yes I will do one or two sessions on what is autism, what is employment development, just to give you some of the basic facts. I’m more interested in, just as I am with coworkers, I want my job coach to know more about this person as a person, as opposed to this person as a person with autism. So I want them to develop a relationship, I want them to be able to have a repoir with this person. So I don’t want them to necessarily get stuck in, well people with autism don’t make eye contact and people with autism engage in repetitive behaviors. I want them to know Susan, I want them to job coach Paul, I don’t want them to job coach a person with autism, I think that’s a critical part of their training. Ongoing feedback is essential, and ongoing positive feedback really is critical, because I want them to be self-reinforced, but we all need a little external pat on the back. Even if it’s a supervisor or somebody else that just stops by every once in a while, not just to check on what’s going on, but also to expect things will be going really well. What we tend to do as supervisors, is we dedicate all of our time to trouble spots and none of our time to where things are going really well, and just like with our kids, if you act out you get the most attention and if you do something really really well no one says thank you. I think we as supervisors have to make sure that we reinforce and praise and thank the individuals who are doing this, because otherwise it’s a pretty lonely job out there. But I think the most critical part is this hands on training part, one thing we do know about training is language based training results in language-based responses. I could sit in front of somebody and tell you you’re going to be a job coach and then they could take their post test and tell me what they’re supposed to do, but unless I didn’t get out there with them and show them what to do, and tell them what to do, and prompt them, and reinforce them, it doesn’t translate into any real overt action, so it’s a critical part of what we do.

You discuss the importance of the relationship between the job coach and the individual with autism that they are supporting. What should the relationship between the job coach and the employer be?

The relationship between the job coach and the employer really should be sort of a faded liaison. Initially they may be the person at the end of every session saying, how did this go, did this go well, I need your feedback right now. You want to also prompt your supported employee to be a part of that, to whatever extent possible. But they need to be able to take the more active role to be able to answer coworker questions, and if somebody seems or feels uncomfortable in a situation to follow-up and find out why so they can address it in a way that meets the needs of both their supported employee and the colleague. So they really have to be able to navigate these two very, very different worlds. One of the hardest things for me to learn as a job developer and a job coach was to speak business; to be able to interact with business people. Those of us in the autism field we get to get together and we say “Oh we’re not going to talk about autism tonight” and that’s all we talk about. Their just interested in was the job done right, and that’s your fastest way for your job coach and the supported employee to gain the respect of their colleagues and supervisors, is by doing the job. If the job coach can facilitate that, while acting as this liaison, that’s the win/win situation for everybody. And then the ultimate goal of a job coach is to put themselves out of the job, which is really the definition for all of us in the field, we would like to say that everyone is going to get independent enough that I don’t need to be there. To the extent that that’s possible, to the extent that that’s frequently possible, that’s on a case by case basis, but that still needs to remain the goal for every job coach that’s out there, is to be able to fade themselves out of the situation so that natural supports can be in place to maintain everything that they’ve put in place.

Do you have any recommendations for how a job coach can facilitate natural support development?

I think the job coach has to be very aware of all the people around this particular supported employee, and it’s being able to look for those little signs that someone is really interested. Is this someone who asks appropriate questions about this person? Is this someone who seems to go out of their way to make sure they say hi to the person everyday? You can pick out that person. I get sucked in to watching poker on TV now, which is incredibly stupid but it’s one of my things, in gambling there are these things call “tells”, so if someone’s bluffing they blink. I look for tells, the job coach needs to look for tells. Is this person interested, does this person seem involved; does this person seem to care? Those are tells that maybe I can then give this person some skills, and everybody wants to feel confident. So if your colleague of this person with autism, and you don’t know how to interact with you, him or her, and I give you some of the skills to do it, now you start to feel confident. So now you’re reinforced for your own behavior, so now you’re going to do it a little bit more, and as you do it a little bit more, then I can start to fade out. In good employer situations, once one person starts to do it, other coworkers think, “why can’t I do that?” So you just train a few more people, or better yet, you get this new natural support person to start training them. So now the resource is coming from their coworker not from this outside professional, now it’s like, “oh, I can do that”, and that’s how it really builds. If develops over time, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s really about finding that “alpha” person initially that you think that you can train, that you think can teach, that wants to really learn how to become part of this natural support environment to help this person thrive in this employment situation.

Is there a generally accepted period of time that a person needs the services of a job coach?

In my opinion, no, I think it is again very individualized to that particular person. And I think to some extent it is this confusion of independent vs. interdependent. When we are talking about natural supports that developing the interdependent relationship that we all have where we work. Yes we may work in cubicles, but they are not sealed off from the rest of our coworkers, and if we need help with a question we go to somebody else. So we have all these natural supports, so as we develop them I think it’s sort of foolish to put, although we do, an arbitrary time by eighteen months he needs to be at this level or we’re going to discontinue the services. I think the more important part of that question really is what’s the most appropriate service for this person, and if I have someone who can do a particular job very, very well, but needs job coaching in terms of mobility issues and some social issues, and he may need that on some level for an extended period of time, I still think that’s a more appropriate service option then him sitting at home, or sitting in a day program. To just put a limit on it, so maybe we have to get creative, maybe we have this one individual with very specific, very complex needs who really does this job very well, but also still needs help navigating some stuff independently and helping with money skills and this sort of stuff, well maybe we then have another person who’s not as complex in their needs that we can bring in, especially if it’s a fairly large employer so we’re not sending out an enclave with six people working together, but we can get them a job in another part of this company. So now my job coach is timesharing between the needs of two people at different places within this company, and then we can try to balance this cost benefit ratio to make this work better.

How do you know when it’s time to start fading a job coach?

Ideally you start fading from day one, that becomes your goal. If our goal is to put ourselves out of a job, what is the process, but I use a very systematic and data based process from there. I not only look at production parameters, is this person meeting their production specifics based upon the definition of the job that they’re performing, but in terms of their social inclusion, what are my goals for them and their goals for themselves in terms of social inclusion and are these goals being met. As those goals get met, then I can start to fade back and back. Setting just an arbitrary, well by week two I want to fade back to here without looking at any sort of objective data I think is often times a recipe for failure. So we need to make sure that the people have the skills and have the supports as we fade back. We fade back we should be pulling the sand out of this end of the jar, but putting more sand in this side which are his coworkers, his employer, and other people in his environment that start filling in at least some of the voids we now are leaving behind, so that they can take over. But it still remains a data based assessment for me and I think by doing that way, so starting at day one thinking O.K. how do I get out of here now, but then making an objective assessment based upon individual perimeters is how we can proceed along there. Again, if I need fade someone, but the person is working at a job they like, and they’re productive, and the employers happy, and I can asses that they like him by the fact that before they use to hate to get out of bed but now they get out of bed independently and dress themselves, where before they wouldn’t work for longer than ten minutes on something and now they are working for three hours on something, I would rather keep them there than say “well you know, times up, thanks for playing, here’s you home game of have a job”. No, we really need to continue looking at how we can best support people in the right options, not just in the simplest option.

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.researchauism.org, 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. 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 that talks about 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.