For many students, the end of the school year represents a time to relax, celebrate the change of pace, and enjoy leisure time. However, each year, there are many individuals who approach the end of the school year and find that this is a time of transition; a time for entering the unfamiliar world outside of the educational system. As these students enter young adulthood, they find the supports of the educational system are not present in the “real world,” but their needs remain and new needs emerge in this unfamiliar territory. Although unchartered and scary, summer for these emerging young adults, can be a rich opportunity to access supports that facilitate a successful transition into adulthood and the workforce. One of the most common difficulties among individuals with High Functioning Autism (HFA), Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), and other social learning needs is not necessarily learning specific job or vocational skills; rather, it is learning how to navigate the workplace in a socially successful manner. Summer time offers these individuals a break from their routine, and with that comes a break from regular social experiences. As such, summer vacation can offer a prime opportunity to maintain and establish workplace related social skills in preparation for the next phase in their lives.
There are several ways that development of work related social skills can be fostered: individual, small group, or self-instruction. While individual and self-instruction are useful methods for gaining an understanding of these skills, developing these skills within a peer group setting is more likely to foster generalization and understanding of the impact of one’s social behaviors upon others. The following core components are essential for developing these skills:
- Interview Skills (and whether or not to disclose a diagnosis)
- Skills for Handling Rejection or Acceptance of a Job
- Social Thinking® (Social Thinking at Work, Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, 2011)
- Communication Skills for the Workplace
- Managing Emotions in the Workplace
- Perspective Taking in the Workplace
- Social Norms in the Workplace
- Relationships in the Workplace
- Technology in the Workplace
Developing the above skills is different from developing pre-vocational or occupational skills in that they do not target job skill development for a particular vocation, but instead target the underlying skills needed to be successful in any workplace. More specifically, these skills target improvement in the way social information is processed and used to guide behavior in the work setting. Learning these skills within a group setting allows for the individuals to learn not only from the facilitators of the group, but from peer feedback and shared experiences. These are powerful tools for facilitating change and helping young adults recognize that they are not alone in their experience of difficulties in these areas.
The first step to improving social skills in the workplace is to develop the social tools necessary to obtain and sustain employment. First and foremost, teaching Social Thinking® strategies is an important component of this process, as they merge an understanding of social skills, or “the ability to effectively adapt our social behavior around others according to the situation, what we know about the people in that situation, and what our needs are” with the concept of thinking in a social way, “how we think about our own and others’ minds” (Social Thinking at Work, Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, 2011). Learning these social strategies provides the foundation for further development of skills for the workplace. These social thinking skills are needed for an individual to interview successfully, as adaptability and the ability to understand the perspective of the interviewer are critical for providing strong interview responses that would help an individual obtain employment. Practicing these skills within a group setting provides the opportunity for individuals to engage in role play and rehearsal with peers and to receive and provide feedback to one another. It also promotes generalization of social functioning that can be applied to the workplace. Additionally, the peer group offers the opportunity for discussion of diagnosis disclosure and ways to advocate for individual needs during the interview process. Furthermore, if a young adult is not offered a job he or she hoped to obtain, the group can offer a peer support system to facilitate understanding of ways to improve for the next interview. The group process can be instrumental in facilitating a successful transitional experience to the work setting.
Once the individual has obtained a job, communication, perspective taking, and emotional regulation are the next critical skills needed for successful and effective social behaviors in the workplace. Targeting Social Thinking® skills prior to obtaining employment can facilitate increased success and confidence within the workplace from the outset of a work experience. If an individual can enter the workplace with a foundation of social communication skills, he or she is more likely to experience success with perspective taking and developing social relationships within the workplace. Aspects of communication that should be targeted in the curriculum include understanding of nonverbal and verbal aspects of communication, and working on the ability to “read between the lines” and decode the aspects of communication that are left unsaid. Furthermore, learning how to gauge the appropriate topics of conversation for the time and with whom one is communicating should also be targeted through the lens of Social Thinking® to facilitate improved socialization within the workplace environment. These aspects of social communication are often challenging for individuals with social learning needs, but are critical for being successful within the workplace. Perspective taking, recognition of social norms and social communication are interrelated aspects of social functioning within the workplace. Participating in a group targeting development of these skills is likely to establish a strong foundation before entering the workplace.
Another domain which should be targeted in an effective curriculum to prepare individuals with social learning needs for the workplace is development of emotion regulation skills. Many individuals with AS or HFA experience difficulty managing their emotions in the moment; as such, many aspects of the workplace (i.e. a supervisor providing constructive feedback) have potential to result in a variety of emotional responses that may not always be appropriate for a work setting. Learning emotion regulation strategies and coping skills are needed areas of developing effective social behaviors for the workplace. Becoming aware of one’s own emotional states, the way one responds to constructive feedback, praise, and frustration is an important first step toward managing emotional responses in the work place. When emotions are not managed in the work environment in an effective manner, individuals are at risk for experiencing difficulty establishing positive social relationships in the workplace, disciplinary action, or even termination of employment making this skill set a necessary component of effective skill development.
One of the last areas of social behavior skill development for the workplace focuses upon developing appropriate boundaries. These boundaries are needed specifically in two different areas: development of workplace relationships and use of technology in the workplace. Navigating the social maze of determining the difference between work relationships, real friendships, and the possible development of romantic relationships is difficult for any person, let alone an individual with social learning needs. As such, using Social Thinking® strategies to develop understanding of the boundaries around these relationships within the workplace is needed to facilitate the development of successful relationships in a work setting. The other area requiring attention to boundaries is the use of technology in the workplace. With the increasing popularity of social networking websites and difficulty determining what information is appropriate for these forums, it is also increasingly difficult for individuals with social learning needs to control the use of technology. As such, understanding the social norms and rules for use of personal technology (i.e. cell phones, tablets, etc.) within the work setting and how to control one’s own use are now imperative components of being prepared for the work place.
Given the many areas of potential for skill development prior to entering the workplace, the summer vacations prior to entering the working world are rich opportunities for teaching the skills needed and ways of thinking in a social manner. Participating in a social group targeting these areas is likely to facilitate improvement in each of the suggested domains and create a foundation for using social cognition in the workplace. This foundation will more likely result in a more successful and smooth working experience for the individual with social learning needs.
For more information regarding the Fay J. Lindner Center and our services, please visit our website at www.FayJLindnerCenter.org, or you may call our office at (516) 686-4440. In addition, Katherine Cody, PsyD is a Licensed Psychologist at Spectrum Services. For more information about Dr. Cody’s work at Spectrum Services, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at (917) 512-7751.