Getting Summer Work Experience For Autistic People
As we head towards summer vacation (or for some of you, it’s already here), it’s time for many with older autistic children to contemplate getting some summer work experience. Creating independence for an autistic child and helping them become successfully employed later on in life can be dependent on how much early experience they can get. Finding a proper fit can be challenging, especially when you have two children on the spectrum like I do. When they were still in their early teens, I found an opportunity for my children, Marc and Julia, to volunteer at our local weekly farmer’s market.
Volunteering is a great way to start
While the farmer’s market volunteer opportunity wasn’t paid, Marc and Julia learned a variety of skills that served them well as they moved towards adulthood.
- Responsibility: The kids were assigned specific jobs that had to be done at certain times. Marc learned pylons have to be set up first in the parking lot, otherwise vendors don’t know where to put their stalls. Julia understood that the pop and water coolers had to be filled first and ice put in so that the drinks would be cold enough by the time the market started.
- Punctuality: You have to be there at the job on time and ready to go. We needed a few minutes to gather ourselves so we arrived early each week. You have to allow time to prepare before the shift actually starts.
- Wearing a Uniform/Dressing Appropriately: Although the market dress code was casual, the kids still had to come with clean, pressed clothes, hair and teeth brushed, and faces washed. This is a habit every time we leave the house. Marc and Julia had to wear an apron that identified them as market volunteers. It wasn’t their favorite piece of clothing, but one that was essential to the job.
- Manager’s Role: We learned what a manager does on a job site. We go to the manager with questions and follow her requests. We seek her out when problems arise. We ask her what needs to be done next if we aren’t sure.
- Coping with New Things: The market was different each week because new people came to the market each week, vendors changed, and weather could be unpredictable. Marc has an intense fear of dogs but was able to cope with them being at the market on a leash. Julia kept him calm and he wasn’t able to run away on the job site.
- Manners: We learned how important manners are in keeping people happy and customer service at its best. Julia worked up to asking vendors if they would like anything to drink, bringing their order to their stalls, and then collecting the money.
- Different People on Different Shifts: One week, our regular market manager was on holidays so we had a different one whose style was not the same. The kids had to work with different volunteers on each shift. This experience helped them realize that each shift isn’t the same even though the job site is in the same place. Things change from week to week.
- Expectations Increase with Experience: As Marc and Julia became more familiar with the market, their job responsibility increased. We did put a cap on it, though. Predictability is key to keeping anxiety levels in check. Adding one new thing to the job roster each week was plenty.
- Delaying Gratification: The kids wanted to work for certain items. Marc wanted 2 DVD’s and Julia wanted a Playmobil Pool. Since the pool was more expensive than the DVD’s, Julia had to work 4 shifts to get the pool. Marc got a DVD after every 2 shifts. Both learned that a more expensive item takes longer to earn.
- The Importance of a Job Well Done: Because there were no behavior problems, the kids followed instructions, were cooperative, polite and hard workers, they were able to continue volunteering every summer. They really want to have the market experience again. This year will be their 8th season.
Ensuring success with first summer work experiences
What I think made this experience such a success was preparation before the job started:
- We used visual supports so they knew what to expect: seeing pictures of the market, watching a clip of it on You Tube, visiting the website. We also added a visual schedule at the market that was divided into time slots. Marc carries a little clock with him everywhere so he was in charge of announcing the time for certain job tasks.
- We created predictability through knowing the other volunteers through the skating club, and by rehearsing expected tasks and through task repetition.
- Job tasks were assigned based on each child’s strength. Julia was interested in the drinks and enjoyed selling them. Marc’s visual memory strength made setting up pylons a breeze. He also liked going around and collecting them once the vendors had set up their stalls. Marc had difficulty speaking to the vendors, but liked to make the rounds with us. Julia could speak to vendors so she took their drink orders.
- Finding motivation was key too, just like it is for anyone. Money doesn’t mean much to the kids but things do. Working towards something tangible and having a chart to show their progress really worked. They knew when they would receive their earned items and didn’t ask for them early, nor did they ask for more than what was pre-arranged.
Volunteering is the way to go to introduce the world of work. All the skills Marc and Julia learned during this experience helped them in school, home and in the community. This was a win-win for all involved. It gave our market volunteers and vendors the chance to work with disabled people and realize how able they are.
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