Helping young adults with Autism build workplace know-how

Over the years I have had the pleasure of supporting young adults (17-20s), with ASD, in mentorship opportunities at Magnificent Minds.

These young adults join our team on a volunteer basis, to learn essential workplace skills like managing their time, following instructions, completing tasks assigned, and generally becoming an active part of the MM community.

In mentoring these dynamic individuals, I have had tremendous success implementing particular strategies (derived from ABA teaching) and have had my fair share of learning moments too.

It is truly amazing how mutual the learning process is for these young adults, and for my staff (and no doubt myself).

In working with young adults with ASD, my staff (and I) get a window into the future for many of our current kiddos. We get a chance to see what the “next stop” will be for the kids we currently support. This kind of experience is valuable for everyone involved.

It may be no surprise to those well versed in ABA, but at the risk of stating the obvious I am going to discuss what was worked for the young adults I have supported.

This will serve as a guide for anyone currently mentoring, or looking to mentor, young adults with Autism in the development of vocational skills.

1. Provide a daily schedule. I can’t stress this enough; in my experience, a schedule provides routine that is integral to meeting the needs of a person on the autism spectrum. Choose a time interval that makes sense based on the setting; I tend to work in 30 minute intervals. Create this schedule for your employee and go over it with them in detail. Within the daily schedule, be very clear. Clearly label times that are “break” and “work related tasks”. Outline when they can "turn off" their work brain for a minute or two, outline when they are expected to check in with a supervisor, outline what they should do if they finish a job early, and so on.

2. Within your schedule, allow for breaks. This may seem counterintuitive to someone looking to yield a productive employee, but I can’t say enough about the value of chunking out short periods for your ASD employee to “turn off”. As the individual becomes more comfortable in the environment, you may be able to lessen the duration or frequency of these breaks; I urge you to consider never completely phasing it out, as it can be instrumental in ensuring productivity during take-related times.

3. Set clear “can do” and “cannot do” expectations for your employee.

In a work place we all have different roles. Your employee may be interacting with a number of people, responsible for any number of different tasks. It is essential that prior to beginning AND once the employee has experienced the work environment, that you discuss (and revisit) the expectations about what is “their job”.

4. In setting “can do” and “cannot do” expectations clearly outline the rationale in a way that builds them up. Be mindful that anytime you tell someone “that’s not your job” there may be an implied message that also says “you’re not good enough/qualified enough/smart enough to do it”. A neurotypical (NT) person recognizes that everyone is hired for a reason, with a goal and a set of skills that makes them uniquely qualified. I, for example, would never try and balance the books, make payroll deductions, and so on. It’s not because I’m not smart, or not good at my job—it’s the opposite. I’m great at my job (not to toot my own horn :P), and finance ISN’T it.

5. When assigning daily tasks, remember that it’s often better to “chip away” at larger tasks over a longer period of time, than trying to bite off more than you can chew. Recognize that chunking (breaking tasks down into small parts) is a fabulous way to gradually increase the expectation, while also ensuring that those big projects get done. For example, instead of categorizing an entire library of books in a day, schedule 30 minute periods to focus on a category at a time and make this part of the everyday routine. Obviously some jobs aren’t afforded the luxury of time (and need to be done right now); in that case, recognize how this could impact the performance and stress level of your employee and consider a different task without the same urgency.

6. Tell me what to do, not what not to do. If something goes wrong remember that it’s always better to tell your employee what they can do better, than what they did wrong. For example, if an employee photocopies 30 copies of the wrong documents, instead of saying “you can’t make mistakes like that!” you can say “I would prefer if you always checked with me before making more than x number of copies of something. This will help me make sure you are clear on the plan and reduce waste.”

7. Thank them every day. This may seem like a given, but in the hustle and bustle of work life it sometimes get forgotten. Whether the day was stellar or challenging, remember that showing up, interacting socially, doing the daily grind is not easy. Always show appreciation! A little positive reinforcement goes a long way to ensure you have a happy employee (on the spectrum, or otherwise :P)

This is a short list, which could become very long. So rather than go on and on, here are some short things to remember...

General rules...

-Respect limitations without using them as an excuse. -Modify expectations based on individual strengths -Recognize that the social component is as difficult (maybe more difficult) than the task oriented components -Foster an environment where ideas are shared, respected and not shut down. -Be the person they can go to if they feel overwhelmed, not the person who causes them to feel overwhelmed (and if you do, by accident, recognize it and apologize for your contributions).

Have follow up questions? I'm happy to answer them!

Phone:  647-404-6349 OR 647-985-7001  


Toronto Campus: 37 Southbourne Avenue - School Wing, Toronto, ON

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