Time was short – SR’s school district contract with Vista Adult Services gave the employment team only six months to make a difference in his life. Yet the team knew what to do and, even more important, how to do it.
• Step 1: Build a rapport with SR to gain his trust. Show him they were listening. When they listened, the team noticed SR had fewer incidences of inappropriate behavior.
• Step 2: Look at businesses to tap into SR’s skill set. “The more we took him out [on work trials], the more progress he made,” says Lindsey Panassow, a career developer.
• Step 3: Help him to calm down. “Once he has a job, he doesn’t like a lot of people around him,” Panassow says. The team listened to SR and made some accommodations.
• Step 4: Give him choices. Give him control of the situation.
Vista Adult Services was born of a need to extend autism services to graduates of The Vista School, but more than half of the 28 adult customers receiving employment services are actually non-Vista graduates. Most are referred to Vista by county agencies. In addition, several school districts contract with Vista for employment services. Contracts are short term, usually lasting six to nine months.
SR became a Vista customer last winter and was discharged in late October. In that short time, Panassow matched SR to two jobs – one at K-Mart and the other at a movie theater – and fellow team member Chelsea Messinger, an employment specialist, trained and supported him on the job.
Putting SR in the right kind of job was the goal, Messinger explains. “If he’s uncomfortable, that’s when the inappropriate behavior starts.”
At K-Mart, where SR landed his first job, he stocks shelves and straightens up. He specializes in the toy department, which helps, because SR loves hot wheels. At first, though, because socializing is a challenge, he wasn’t interested in customer interaction. Now, he explains the serial numbers on hot wheels and what they mean.
He’s also allowed to expand into other departments.
“What’s cool is the DVDs were a complete wreck,” Panassow notes. “He ended up organizing the entire section without guidance.”
“We didn’t even tell him,” Messinger adds. “He picked up that project himself. Every day he came to work, he checked that section.”
One of SR’s many interests is the movies. Naturally, Panassow thought working at a movie theater would appeal to SR. She was right. At the AMC theater near his home in Mechanicsburg, SR cleans bathrooms and other areas of the facility. His supervisors find ways to motivate him.
“If he finds change, he can keep all of it,” Messinger says. “If he does a good job, he can pick out a movie poster.”
Because the contract inevitably would end, the employment team prepared by making sure they identified an advocate for SR when they left. Halloween was the last day of the contract – the day SR was discharged. He loves dressing up for Halloween, so the team obliged him by donning costumes on their final day together. Another agency now supports him at K-Mart, and his home school district handles support at the movie theater.
When they walked out the store, Panassow and Messinger were both crying.
“If we had a longer contract, we would have been able to fade out successfully,” Messinger believes. “Fading out” is the ultimate goal, because it means the individual can succeed with natural supports in the workplace alone. “Fading out” is an example of what Vista means by its vision to become obsolete in the life of a person with autism.
“His only barrier was communication with the customers,” she continues. “If this was something he didn’t have to deal with – social interactions – he would have been able to go to work everyday by himself.”
Adds Panassow, “Along with finding a good job, it was important to find businesses that enjoy him. He has a good sense of humor. Both locations appreciated his uniqueness. It bumped his ego to hear them say they enjoyed him.”
Vista’s employment team is not out of SR’s life entirely. They’ve agreed to be the motivator and go bowling with him – something else he enjoys – on their own time.
“After you work with someone that closely, you build a close relationship,” says Messinger. “To help someone grow that much, you still want to keep in touch.”