This article appears in Autism Spectrum News Winter Edition
What we learn at work can often help us in our life outside of our place of employment, and what we learn during our personal experiences can benefit our performance on the job. Sometimes these transferable skills and behaviors are referred to as “soft skills”.
Throughout my career I gained skills at work that I applied to my personal life, and vice versa. For example, after an IBM attorney required that I get proof of insurance before contracting with a new vendor to produce a video, I started requiring proof of insurance before I had work done on our house. Once I became a parent of a child with autism, I became more patient with and less judgmental of my work colleagues which improved my ability to collaborate with people who I originally thought of as “difficult”.
Unlike technical skills, soft skills and behaviors can be difficult to measure. But without these skills, an employee is unlikely to be effective in her job, no matter how simple or complex the work tasks are. Furthermore, without these skills, adults with autism are more likely to be dependent on others to negotiate life for them.
Neuro-typical people pick up these soft skills, through opportunities in school, through life experiences, and through intuition. People with autism generally have difficulty with intuition as well as in generalizing – that is, applying a solution for one specific situation to another similar but not exactly the same situation.
Yes She Can job skills coaches help our trainees build the thinking skills and behaviors that are essential at work but also enhance our participants’ life at home and in their community.
At Yes She Can our work skills counselors are clinical professionals, and provide behavioral coaching while trainees are engaged in all aspects of running a resale store. In addition to the typical challenge of the workplace, the counselors intentionally set up opportunities for trainees to experience moments of tension. Our participants learn best when they are engaged in real-life situations.
Yes She Can’s comprehensive curriculum includes guidelines for how to undertake various tasks. But we teach trainees that guidelines work 80% of the time, while the other 20% of the situations require the worker’s discretion. Many of our program participants have had little opportunity to rely on their own judgement. They have no confidence and are afraid to make a mistake. The most frequent expression they use is “I’m sorry.”
We let our program participants know that we trust them and that they can make decisions; that making a mistake is simply a learning opportunity that can be applied not only to the workplace but to their life, enabling them to be more independent.
Here are a few examples of challenges our trainees faced at work but with counseling they learned from them to enhance their work and personal life. Each of these scenarios requires perspective-taking, something that a challenge for people with autism.
Be able to make a good business decision, where a “good” decision is one that is reasonable and fits with the business objectives, not your personal preferences.
At our program at Girl AGain boutique, a trainee had an assignment to dress a particular American Girl doll named Marisol and prepare her for sale. Marisol’s original outfit was not in our inventory but there was something similar available. Our trainee refused to do the task because she said “it’s not authentic.”
Her manager acknowledged that this was not ideal, but that an average customer would be happy to have this doll in a similar, not original, outfit. Our trainee could not accept a “good” option for the business because it did not meet her personal perspective. We discussed the implications of losing her job if she refused to follow her manager’s directions, and this was not something she could even comprehend was a possibility. She became agitated and needed to decompress in our “cozy corner” in the store.
Understanding the business needs and a customer’s perspective is a challenge for our trainees with autism (perhaps due to a lack of theory-of-mind), but it is something we believe is important to work on.
This ability to make a good decision, not a perfect one, in all aspects of life will reduce frustration and enable the individual to accept limitations and still feel a sense of accomplishment.
Be able to wait for a response from a manager, and at the same time, be able to move on to other work in order to be productive.
A former trainee, who is now an associate, was entering hand written sales receipts into Quick Books. Sometimes the handwriting is hard to read, so she would ask for assistance after each receipt she couldn’t read. That meant interrupting the manager every 10 minutes. She learned to put all the receipts that were not legible in a pile and keep moving on through the rest. Her manager explained that Quick Books didn’t care that the receipt numbers would be out of order as a result of holding back some.
With the receipts that were hard to read we asked her to first make a recommendation before expecting her manager to come up with a solution. She had to overcome her anxiety of waiting, and of accepting that receipts out of order were not always under her control, and also realizing that she could solve the problem herself.
At home, her mother reports that she has since taken more initiative in responsibilities and decisions in her personal life.
Be able to respond to your manager’s change in priorities, although it may result in an unexpected – and annoying – shift in your work tasks.
One trainee who was working on an assigned data input task, was asked by her manager to help a customer who just walked into the store. In fact, the trainee’s favorite work task it to sell American Girl merchandise to customers. But, the trainee’s response was “not now, I’m busy”.
She could not shift from one priority to another. She did not understand that an interruption did not mean she could not return to her original assignment after helping the customer. This was not explicitly stated but a neuro-typical person would intuit that. The business priorities changed instantly because a customer comes first, yet the trainee could not recognize she needed to shift.
At home, this young woman now responds to requests that are interruptions with a “sure, give me a minute”. She is learning that she needs to be flexible and be responsive to spontaneous requests in a way that she feels she is still in control.
Being able to understand your manager’s perspective, shift from one priority to another, and respect your manger’s time and use you time productively are all difficult to teach. These skills need to be directly taught in an authentic environment – at school, at work, in the community – and practiced in a safe environment. And it is never too early to start.