The following post was contributed by Angie Smitson, BlueSky Administrative Assistant.
“You reap what you sow,” goes the old proverb. Call it karma, the golden rule, or simply gratitude: At BlueSky, we take service to heart, giving back through BlueSky Cares — a program through which employees donate their time, skills and resources to our community. Initiatives include an annual golf outing benefiting Brooke’s Place, adopting families in need each Christmas, pitching in for back-to-school supplies, and blood drives.
Recognizing that spirit of service, Jane Grimes, author of Autism Companion and winner of the 2015 Harriet P. Isray’s Distinguished Parent Award, teamed with Noble, an organization committed to helping those with disabilities gain professional experience, and approached BlueSky with an idea for a pilot program: Hiring a high-ability autistic teenager.
BlueSky CEO Todd Irwin embraced the opportunity, expanding the BlueSky Cares program this past summer to welcome our new employee, Taylor James, as an office assistant.
A student at Midwest Academy in Carmel, Indiana, Taylor worked two hours, four days a week, with the assistance of an aide from Noble. Over the course of the summer, the aide shifted from high-involvement to hands-off, and by the end of the summer Taylor had mastered her job responsibilities.
“It was the greatest summer of my life,” said Taylor.
It was also a great summer for BlueSky, thanks to Taylor’s dedication and bright smile!
Having had the pleasure to supervise Taylor, I found the program’s success hinged on four key ingredients: planning, communication, approachability, and patience.
Planning: Outlining tasks and defining how an individual on the autism spectrum should approach those tasks.
For individuals on the autism spectrum, it’s important to complete steps in order. For example, if you give an individual on the spectrum a list of bullet point items, then odds are those items will be checked-off in meticulous order.
Those on the autism spectrum also favor color-coding. I made sure Taylor had four highlighter colors, a blue and black pen, and a few pencils. Her tasks were on color-coded notecards with as few words as possible. Pictures are also helpful, as reading can feel overwhelming.
The color-coded cards created a flexible and familiar environment for Taylor. Each day began with a simple routine designed to increase her comfort level. After completing the first few tasks on the picture-based list, Taylor took a short break before choosing which card to do first. This allowed her to decide which task was the highest priority.
Blue notecards were for computer tasks, pink were for break room tasks, yellow were for general office tasks, and green were for outside tasks. The key is knowing what your new employee is capable of, and adding a few challenges to the list that are easily teachable.
When Taylor had a slow day, she added to her stack of colored notecards using white copy paper. She felt ownership over her work and became proactive in adding to her duties.
Communication: Clearly and simply saying what you need to say, and ensuring understanding with follow-up questions before moving on.
At times, tasks that weren’t captured on notecards required attention. Openly communicating the need and asking whether time allows for the task to be completed is all it takes when interacting with an autistic associate. Odds are that if you have a foundation of trust and respect, the new task will be completed in record time.
It’s vital to encourage individuals on the autism spectrum. Like most people, those with autism need to hear their efforts are appreciated, and making a positive difference. It’s a simple gesture that goes a long way.
Approachability: Building a foundation of trust and respect, so your high-ability colleague feels comfortable approaching you with questions, concerns, and ideas.
Fostering an environment where questions are encouraged is critical for any role, but especially for autistic associates.
Initially, those on the autism spectrum are scared of you and the new environment. Creating a welcoming environment encourages approachability, questions, exchange of ideas, and the tools necessary for both individual and corporate success.
Patience: Explaining expectations and instructions, and listening to questions at a pace that engenders confidence and understanding.
Learn to be calm if you are supervising an individual on the autism spectrum — or even those not on the spectrum. Staying calm helps everyone maintain control of the situation at hand, leading to greater success.
Expect to be surprised, and expect to have to explain social nuances.
Saying “yes” to the pilot program while other companies said “no” was the right choice for BlueSky, and for our partners. By adding diversity into our workforce — and Taylor into our BlueSky family — everyone wins. Our summer with Taylor is an experience we want to duplicate and expand, and we look forward to the program’s growth in the years ahead.
For more information about Noble and its mission to provide vital services for children and adults with disabilities like Down syndrome and autism, visit www.MyNobleLife.org.