Finding the Right Message
In a few years my son may enter the workforce. I’ve been trying to find the right message to convey to him now so that he may be successful finding employment. Recently I had the opportunity to attend an Employment Think Tank  hosted by Autism Speaks  that featured employers, service providers, researchers and self-advocates. The meeting left me feeling hopeful. There are high-quality companies—such as AMC Theaters , TIAA-CREF , Specialisterne , to name a few—who are employing, and looking to employ, more people on the autism spectrum. Furthermore, one can expect large companies that have contracts with the federal government to be looking to hire more people with disabilities by 2013, after new regulations for Section 503  of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973  are published in December.
In my prior vocation, when younger associates sought advice about their careers, I pointed them toward choices that would allow them to build a knowledge base from which they could develop sought-after skills. As I listened to employers at the Think Tank talk about what they were seeking from future employees, I thought about what knowledge base our family should help our son build, and what “core skills” employers were seeking from employees with ASD. In our case, the knowledge base probably needs to include a sound understanding of my son’s strengths so that he, as well as my wife and I, can articulate these to potential employers or educators. The strengths should include specific skills and tasks that he does well, as well as areas of special interest. We should not assume that employers will discover his talents. As a corollary, we should also be aware of specific situations or stumbling blocks that we should look to avoid. Armed with this knowledge, we should build the following skill sets that employers mentioned during the Think Tank:
Dependability: A dependable employee arrives to work regularly and punctually. Therefore, we need to develop transportation skills—which may include driving, finding someone else to drive, or taking public transportation independently. Too often families attempt to develop transportation skills after employment has been secured, and resulting missteps make the employee appear unreliable to the employer. Dependable employees also accomplish tasks given to them, so we may wish to help our son develop task analysis skills so that he can break down his assignment into small, achievable steps.
Common Sense: This is a tough skill for our population to develop. Adults with ASD don’t necessarily “get it” reliably. We need to help our son become aware when he doesn’t understand what is being expected of him, and how to ask the questions he needs in order to clarify the situation. Part of this process may include developing effective self-advocacy skills, such as reminding employers to use specific instructions and avoid euphemistic speech if possible. An effective self-advocate seeks “reasonable” accommodations, and should also be willing to do himself what he is asking others to do.
Good Attitude: This is often easier to develop than common sense, especially if the job is in an area of high interest. Doing a job well ought to be a reward in itself. Helping to establish the old maxim, “any job worth doing is worth doing well” will be highly appreciated by potential employers.
Workplace Navigation: The ability to navigate the workplace includes understanding what behaviors are appropriate in different situations. This will include an understanding of public versus private space. Most places at work are public, though one’s own cubicle or office is usually somewhat more private. When customers are present some behaviors may be expected that are not otherwise. Meetings are different events than breaks in the snack room. Touching coworkers must be done within prescribed rules or not at all, and interactions with coworkers will be different than interactions at home with family. Appropriate socialization at work may be very difficult to cultivate.
Most employers feel confident that they can teach job-specific skills, but these “soft skills” are the ones that our family needs to work on developing now because they will be needed in almost any workplace. I hope that if I can send the right message now, my son can find the right job in the future.