Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Art of Small Talk

About a month ago, I sat in on Jacob's 17th and last ever IEP.  He's all set to graduate with a diploma this spring, and by all accounts, everything is on track. He’s showing up on time to all of his classes, he completes all of his homework on his own, he actively participates in classroom discussions, and he has a peer group to which he connects at school.. He’s volunteering in the library to complete his community service hours, and he just stared his third Workability job, a repeat of the same job he had last year at Best Buy organizing and stocking shelves.

One area that I know Jacob still has difficulty is making initial connections to others. He has friends at school, but he has not made any meaningful relationships with his supervisor or the coworkers at his Best Buy job.  Even  though this may not seem like a big deal considering how well everything else is going, this is a very important skill that Jacob will need to develop in order to successfully transition to independence.  I know for me, work was always more than just a paycheck.  It was also the place where I developed meaningful friendships.  When I started a job, I wasn’t usually acquainted anyone, but I learned how to start and engage in conversations which became the catalyst for the development of deeper friendships. Had I not been able to do this, I never would have developed the network of friends that I eventually made.

And how did these friendships start?  With small talk.  When meeting someone for the first time, we don't usually start off discussing anything like politics or whether or not we support the death penalty. The first conversation usually starts with a “How are you today?”, or "I like that jacket.  Where did you get it?” We don't usually go into detail about our special interests either, which many people with autism do because it's easier for them to control a conversation about something they are well-versed as opposed to having to respond in the moment to what the other person communicates.  Talking about something trivial is a way to get the ball rolling so we can gauge if we share anything in common or have a common bond. It sets the stage to get to know the other person better and if all goes well, a deeper, more meaningful friendship has the possibility to develop.

So what happens when you have difficulty talking about nothing important? What occurs when you are unable to “think on the fly” and need to react to the person in the moment based on new information or non-verbal cues? How can you possibly expect to make the friendship connection when you don’t even know how to start the first conversation?  When you can't do this, you can’t develop friends or allies in the workplace, and this puts you’re at a big disadvantage in keeping your job.

This is a big reason why individuals with autism have such a high unemployment rate. Even when a person is able to get the job, the ability to keep it depends a lot on the social networks that are made in the workplace. If you don’t make a connection with your supervisor, promotions are pretty much non-existent and any type of mentoring opportunity is lost. If you’re co-workers don’t have your back, they won’t cover for you when you need it or worse, they’ll try to get you fired.  Something as simple as not saying hi to someone when you first thing in the morning can be upsetting or can make your co-worker think you're rude.  And once this happens, a bad reputation can easily spread and others won't like you either.

So for Jacob’s very last IEP, the most important goal we developed was the ability to make small talk. Jacob is very lucky that he has a good team IEP. The plan we all made with Jacob was that his teachers would engage in simple conversations so he could practice making small talk. The speech therapist was going to be consulting with his teachers to see how it was going, and Jacob was going to start with cue cards to help him come up with topics to kick off the conversation. 

We'll see how it goes.  I've seen a lot of progress with Jacob, and it's easy to feel complacent to see how far he has come.  But I know the statistics for young adults just like Jacob are really bleak, and the future won't be so bright unless he's able to keep job and develop friendships in the workplace.  So I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Everything is Going to be Alright

I love having  a mantra.  Don't sweat the small stuff  and it's all small stuff, I used alot when Jacob was a youngster.  Everything is going to be alright.  That is my favorite one right now; I even imagine Bob Marley singing it.  But at times, this one is a bit harder to embrace in regards to Jacob's future even though by all accounts it's smooth sailing these days.

As a parent of a child with an autism spectrum disorder, I took a lot on faith while Jacob was growing up.  That the expensive bi-weekly speech therapy was really worth it.  That his classroom aide was truly dedicated in her job supporting him.  That eventually, he would mature into a productive, happy, and independent young man. Now that he is 18, I can see that most of the time, his behavior shows that he greatly benefited all of his interventions.  I can now see that he has the ability to successfully transition to adulthood and possibly do it well.

I know that I was extremely lucky to live in the community that I did when Jacob was growing up.   The office of the doctor that first diagnosed him was located just a few blocks from my house.  Our public elementary school had excellent services including an amazing occupational therapist who was employed by LAUSD.  Jacob and I were part of several playgroups that became great social opportunities for both of us.  There were beautiful parks and the beach was just a mile west down the hill from where we lived. I was also lucky because I co-owned a successful business with his father that I managed part-time from home.  And because this, I had the time and money to focus on Jacob and what he needed.  I was available to drive him to doctor and therapy appointments.  I had time to coordinate information between his school and all of the professionals that were hired by me to support him.  I could spend time developing his imaginative play by sitting on the floor and creating fun scenarios with his plastic toy animals and Thomas the Tank Engine trains.

It's sad to see that California is proposing such large budget cuts to social services because the Westside Regional Center was and continues to be a tremendous support for Jacob and me.  We had the same case worker for almost ten years who was wonderful, and every case worker since has been a a great advocate for him..  WRC has funded so many wonderful experiences including summer camps, swimming lessons, social skills classes, even covering the fees for my RDI Consultant.  I relied heavily on WRC, so when I hear about all of the funding cuts that are being proposed to the Department of Developmental Services, I wonder how much longer can the entire Regional Center system survive.

All of the wonderful supports for Jacob have paid off, and when you observe him today, he is doing great.  He's a confident young man.  He's getting good grades in school.  He just completed his second Workability-sponsored retail job.  He's even starting to venture out into the community with his peers, and this only started yesterday.  It was the last day of 11th grade and he went out to lunch to Dennys with his friends from school.  This was a huge step for him, and a huge surge of happiness for me.

But there is still a ways to go.  Does he engage with my husband or me in conversations on topics outside his own interests?  Rarely.  Does he have an idea if he wants to go to college or what his career path might be?  No idea at this point.  I've told him that he can pursue anything after he graduates, and it doesn't matter if it's work or school.  The only option not available is doing nothing all day.  He says he understands, but, right now, he can't make a decision about what he'll be doing that far in the future.  That's cool.  He doesn't graduate for another year so I'll let him enjoy his carefree high school days while they last.

Now that Jacob is 18, he's legally an adult.  He has the right to choose what he wants to do with his life even if I don't agree with what those choices might be.  As long as he's living a moral, ethical, and law-abiding life, I have to back off and accept whatever Jacob decides.  I have to remember that he is now a young man, and he deserves to be treated and respected as an adult.

So, do I really feel that everything is going to be alright?  Yeah, I do.  But does that mean I still worry that maybe everything is not going to be alright?  Yeah, I do that too.  I think as a parent, I'll always wonder if Jacob is happy, doing well in his job and pursuing his dreams, and I'll do this regardless of his challenges.  I think about these things because I'm Jacob's Mom.  And because I'm Jacob's Mom, I'm always going to hope that everything is going to be alright.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I'll be Back!

Life certainly gets in the way at times, and, for me, it's doubly true for this blog.  I invite you to check out any of my past posts as listed to your left, but here are the top in order of views.  Enjoy & I promise I'll be back soon.

Please Don't Tell Your Child to Look Me in the Eye

Autism 101:  Interview with Dr. Sandra Kaler

The Teenage Years are Tough

Can't We all Just Get Along 


Saturday, January 7, 2012


I'm finally back after being away for a few months.  Below is my monthly contribution to Hopeful Parents.

In the absence of posting anything new to this website or my blog, I've been busy making many life changes including to getting remarried and purchasing a new home.  This is in no way a complaint - I appreciate all of it, no matter how stressful or overwhelming it may feel in the moment.  My life's journey has involved many roadblocks, and these changes are definitely all positive.

One of the changes that has been majorly positive is Jacob.  He continues to do well at Culver City High School. I'm getting great feedback from all of his teachers, he has a few friends, and, through the school's Workability Program, he starts his new job at Best Buy on Monday.  Last year, he worked at Petco stocking and organizing and he did a great job so he's not worried about his new employment.  He's just hoping that he gets to stock and organize the merchandise in the DVD department as this is pretty much his dream job.  When Jacob has disposable income, Best Buy is one of his favorite places to shop, and he's bought a lot of his movies from the store in our neighborhood.  I'm just going to have to help him learnn to budget his money so every cent he earns is not spent before he cashes his check.

I can't remember the last stressful moment I've had with Jacob.  The days of his disruptive behavior in class ended long ago.  He is now completely independent in completing his homework, so the days of coordinating with his teachers in turning in his assignments are a distant memory.  He want to attend college after he graduates from high school next year, so he's actually planning for his future.  He even takes care of all his personal hygiene without my prompting or nagging.  Pretty much of what I had hoped Jacob would be doing at this stage of his life are actually happening.  Way to go Jacob!

Did I really think this is where Jacob was going to be at 18?  To be honest, I had no idea.  Though he was an adorable little guy, his behaviors were at times challenging.  He was never a child that could attend birthday parties on his own.  Play dates needed to be moderated and facilitated by me.  At one time, he had lots services to coordinate, so I spent hours driving Jacob to and from therapy and doctor appointments.  Now that it's nearly 15 years from the day of his diagnosis, I guess it all paid off because Jacob is now a fairly happy and confident young man.  Not that there isn't more room for growth, but at least now I'm optimistic about the future.  When Jacob was young, there were days when I feared the unknown.  At least for now, Jacob seems to be on the right path and the future isn't a big, scary question mark.

So yes, I'm truly a hopeful parent these days for Jacob's progress and this is something I truly grateful.  I know how wonderful it feels, and I wish the same for every parent with a child with an autism spectrum disorder.