Saturday, September 9, 2017

Neurodiversity Employment -- Why It's Broken

I just had the pleasure of speaking at AASCEND's job club in San Francisco with Michael Bernick and Andy Aczel of the Specialist's Guild, also in San Francisco. We were being videotaped for a documentary on autism employment (I'll be sure to share here and elsewhere when it's complete) about the state of the union, so to speak.

As usual, it was a lively conversation, which is one of the reasons I always try to get up there when asked -- I learn so much, too!

Here's a breakdown of the challenges/topics that need to be addressed:

  • Poor definitions -- what is autism? This is a big issue, where for better or worse we have moved from media portraying autism as savants (Rain Main) to geniuses with less-than-perfect social skills (Big Bang Theory, Atypical, The Good Doctor). Those of us working in the field tend to use clunky definitions such as 'high functioning', 'moderately-impaired' and other ill-fitting and demeaning terms. The truth is, some folks on the Spectrum are indeed geniuses in some areas, and really struggle in others. Some struggle across 'functional domains' (skills society deems as necessary to partake in mainstream life). Some autistic people will earn advanced degrees and go on to have fabulous careers with little problem 'passing' as neurotypical. Others may require sheltered employment with hand-over-hand instruction to succeed vocationally. Autism is a poor definition as a whole, and the 'sub-type' definitions we use are not accurate. This is an important aspect to this challenge,because just as someone without the ability to add and subtract would make a poor accountant, not every job will  be a good fit for every person on the Spectrum.
  • Not all CompSci -- think bigger. This brings me to the second challenge. There is a huge misconception that everyone on the Spectrum, certainly all of the 'high functioning' folks, are a perfect fit for computer science, networking, and programming jobs. Again, this is just wrong. For every autistic person who comes in trying to get into programming, I have another client coming in for graphic design, teaching, writing, and so on. We need to be wary of any program that sells itself as 'the fix' for this challenge through training and recruiting only for CompSci jobs. These are people with a wide array of interests and talents, not trainable code monkeys. 
  • Silicon Valley doesn't get it -- Not Invented Here syndrome.The only major company who has really made a significant investment into hiring autistic employees is SAP. There are initiatives underway at Microsoft, Cisco, Google, LinkedIn, Uber, SalesForce, and other companies, but they are not interested (from what we can see) in working with other companies or workforce specialists in the Silicon Valley area. They want their own homegrown program, presumably so that they can enjoy the laurels of their work as proof to just how evolved they are in tackling this challenge. As a former high tech worker, this is the functional equivalent of everyone developing their own operating systems. We need to think Unix here. We (and others like us) have the infrastructure, the materials, the knowledge base, the connections,the hard-earned wisdom that can help these and other companies develop programs that work for THEM. Just like Unix as a platform, we need companies to see US as platforms from which to build their own programs. 
  • Department of Rehabilitation, Department of Education, and EDD are all VERY late to the game. There is a good reason why parents such as myself are doing this work -- there are no systems in place to deal with these challenges, and we're not going to wait around for our government agencies to get with it. We'll led, hope they follow, and if not, we'll figure it out on our own. But it sure would be nice if these agencies helped us and companies fund this work so that we can make a bigger impact for more people.
  • Colleges don't get it -- Skills not Degrees. Another very broken aspect of the equation is that college students are graduating without marketable skills. The world is very different now than when I was a fresh graduate -- smart people don't get hired. People with demonstrated skills get hired. We need to make sure that every person who invests in college -- on or off the Spectrum -- knows what will be needed to get a job, and then get those skills as part of his or her education. Further, tech jobs in particular mean ongoing education just to keep up. No one rests on his or her educational laurels any more, and we need to accommodate for that.
There's a lot more to say, of course, and I'll try to cover more in future posts. My goal was to work until things changed for the better, and I'm sorry to say it doesn't look like I will retire any time soon. 

©2017 EvoLibri Consulting/Jan Johnston-Tyler

Friday, September 8, 2017

Being the Nag (And Learning to Love It)

Being the Nag. 

Don't we get enough of that at home? Nagging our children to do their homework, to do their chores, to behave in a way that reflects well on us as parents...after all, it's all about us, lol.

Yeah, we do get enough of that. And, we probably need to do less, because in the end, having a good, honest, and respectful relationship with your child is far more important than a clean room or straight As. Trust me on this.

But one area we cannot, and should not, stop nagging is with school districts, particularly around accommodations and services that are promised but not delivered, or followed.

As my colleague (and now employee) Rachel Roth will attest, it's just amazing how many goals on IEPs are developed, and then never followed -- no milestones entered, no reliable end of year summary, and if the goal didn't work (for whatever reason), they are often just dropped the next year.

If you've seen this on your child's IEP and think it's just you -- think again. It happens all the time.

Here are some guidelines you can follow to learn to love being a nag:

  • Remember that ALL goals should be SMART:
    1. Specific -- what skills or behaviors will increase or decrease?
    2. Measurable -- by how much will these behaviors increase or decrease, and who will measure them using what metrics?
    3. Actionable -- is this goal actionable, in that there are available resources and time, and are they defined? Who is responsible? (And, it should not be YOU or YOUR CHILD -- all goals on an IEP should have ONE teacher or administrator responsible.) 
    4. Realistic -- is this a realistic goal? For example, if the school 'decides' that they can bring your child up from a 4th grade reading level to a 10th grade in one year, you may want to question this decision.
    5. Timebound -- this is part and parcel of an IEP in so far as there should be notations on progress at regular intervals. 
  • For this last item, ask that milestone DATES are added to the IEP, and then mark these on YOUR calendar, and contact the district for updates at that time. If you trust the district to give these to you informally, that's great. If not, call an interim IEP at each milestone to get progress.
  • If there is not enough progress, or if there is none, then it makes no sense to keep that goal as is -- the goal needs to be rewritten to accommodate the failure. There's an old saying in product management -- Nine women cannot make a baby in one month. If timelines were well thought out to begin with, they should stick, which means more time needs to be added to that goal, which means it may need to carry over to the next year, and if not completed in a timely manner then you're past graduation with unmet goals, and that means that the school district can be claimed to owe you COMPENSATORY EDUCATION. Think services and goals, not timelines here. Their clock may be ticking. Your child's isn't. An IEP is a contract. When contracts are broken or not fulfilled, there are consequences. Compensatory education is that consequence.
  • Think ahead. What skills will your child need in future grades? A mistake we see is to focus too much on academics, and too little on social and executive functioning areas, and later too little focus on independent living skills. We are raising adults, here, not forever students. IDEA clearly states that the end goal is to develop a young adult 'prepared for post-secondary life' -- which may include academics in college, but includes far more than that. Don't skip group work, WORK on group work. Don't hide your child from social situations, WORK on them. Don't let the school provide too much 'hand over hand' with regards to executive functioning, have them TEACH executive functioning. I don't want others fishing for my kids, I want them to learn HOW to fish!
  • Get creative. "We can't do that" is code for "we don't want to do that". If your child actually needs something, and you can prove it and aren't totally off your rocker (sorry, there are a few...), then your child should get it. But think out of the box. And do expect that there WILL be things you should be providing for your kiddo, because more help and support all around will develop a better outcome for him/her. 
  • Don't lose your sense of humor or your compassion. Districts DO work hard, and DON'T have adequate funding, so there's no need to be punishing or mean. Push, yes, but focus on the goals. 
Being a nag is much easier when you remember that this is a long journey, and that staying on the path will result in success. Too many kids end up with poor outcomes or delayed launches because the parents got tuckered out mid-way, or couldn't find the energy to keep up. Reach out to other parents and support groups if this is the case. You don't have to do this alone. But you DO have to DO it. Learn to love it!

©2017 EvoLibri Consulting/Jan Johnston-Tyler