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“‘Impossible’ Is Just a
Frame of Mind”

By Sandra Grabman

Job coaching one’s own son or daughter might not be for everyone, but it seemed the only option for us. Now, I highly recommend it. Here is our story.

When my autistic son Buz graduated from high school, the pride I felt in his accomplishment was matched by a profound sense of relief. No more fights with the school system; no more constant monitoring his progress; no more “educating the educators”. It was over! We could finally relax and live our lives like normal people.

Buz with his boss, Jana Morgan.

Eighteen months later, that relief was a distant memory. Buz had been a victim of waiting lists and bureaucratic broken promises, and was more or less vegetating at home. I was afraid that doing nothing but watching game shows on TV all day, every day, would become a routine that he would refuse to break if something was not done soon.

He was still on waiting lists for three group homes, none of which was terribly impressive, but at least they all had work and activity programs.

Because he had been mainstreamed for over half of each day at high school and we had always encouraged him to participate in community activities with the family, Buz refused to think of himself as handicapped and wanted to have nothing to do with places or activities that surrounded him with handicapped people. Thus, a group home was not the answer for him.

The voc-rehab counselor wanted him to go to the local workshop. “It’s the only act in town,” she said sadly. He refused. I agreed with Buz because I knew he was capable of much more than I had seen workshop clients doing. He needed direct supported employment with on-the-job training. It was available, but there was a long waiting list. In the meantime, they said, he needed to be going to the workshop for job-skills training. They could not seem to understand that he does not generalize that kind of knowledge well – from the (dreaded) workshop to a real workplace.

Buz and I have always had a trusting relationship. Because of this, he was very receptive to the idea of my taking a leave of absence from work to job coach him myself.

I asked the voc-rehab counselor if the Department of Human Services could fund my doing this. All I asked was $5/hour. That would help pay my bills during that time. They set up a meeting for us to discuss this concept with people in positions of authority. At this meeting were representatives of the Department of Human Services, Rehabilitation Services, Developmental Disabilities Services, the Association of South Central Oklahoma Governments, and the workshop. When I presented my proposal of being Buz’s job coach, they quickly dismissed that idea as “impossible” and spent the next couple hours pointing fingers at each other. Each agency thought another agency should be the one to provide the services. The meeting finally ended, but with no apparent results – only vague promises that they would take care of it.

I wish now that I had tape-recorded that meeting. At the time, I thought it best not to, thinking they would be less defensive and more willing to make deals without a recorder present.

Days later, after I had time to digest what had transpired at the meeting, I was furious. How dare they smugly assume that, just because they were “professionals”, they knew better than we did what was best for Buz. Many of them had never even set eyes on him before that day. Who would know better what teaching techniques work for an individual than the very people who raised him and had been teaching him all his life?

I wrote to one of the DHS representatives because she was the least arrogant and seemed to have some concern for Buz. I asked where it was written that it was “impossible” for a parent to do the job coaching. I was trying to understand why they refused to take this faster, easier, better, and cheaper route. She wrote back that nothing specifically prevents parents from job coaching, but they had always funded only agencies, not individuals. Agencies were being paid $23/hour (per disabled client) by them to do this. And yet these people at the meeting were uninterested in getting it done better for a fraction of the cost. As a taxpayer, I resent that. (In fact, on a tour of the facilities of Halliburton Services, I observed one person job coaching six disabled people at the same time, an obvious attempt by the workshop to maximize its income – $138/hour – while minimizing its expenses. Good business practice, perhaps, but not very likely to be meeting the needs of their disabled clients. Undoubtedly, it would cause frustration for the job coach, too. Those clients were, by the way, all working together in a small area set apart from regular Halliburton employees. Out of sight, out of mind. Just how normal do you suppose that made those six people feel?)

Two months later, Buz was still at home with no supported employment in sight. He was becoming very irritable. I had had it with the bureaucratic system. Funded or not, I was going to job coach my son.

A friend of mine in Oklahoma City was a job coach, so I asked him where he had gotten his training. His answer: the University of Oklahoma. After a phone call to the developer of that training, Dave Brooks, I enrolled in the course. Dave said that I was the first parent to take it, but he was willing to give me a try.

This intensive course lasted for a week – forty hours. It covered all aspects of supported employment and was exhausting, but fascinating to me. Two of my classmates were job coaches newly-hired by our local workshop, but they did not seem to be taking this instruction as seriously as I – they came to class late each morning, left early in the afternoons, and failed to participate much in the classroom discussion. They were very young and, apparently, had little emotional investment in the course. Their coach training, however, was being funded for them by the workshop and the governmental entities that supported it. I had paid out-of-pocket for mine.

Once back home, I cut my regular job down to halftime so I could devote my afternoons to getting Buz a job.

First, I went to the State Employment Service to find out more about the Targeted Jobs Tax Credit, the financial incentive for the employers of handicapped workers. Then, I went to every business that might have work that I felt Buz could do. I explained to them the concept of supported employment in general, then told them about Buz in particular. I told them his strengths and weaknesses, gave them his resume and my business card, and suggested ways that Buz could help them. The most receptive potential employers by far were those who already knew Buz from community activities or church.

Within a week, the owner of a frame shop called with a job offer. She asked that Buz work two afternoons a week. We happily accepted.

First, I went there alone for two afternoons in order to learn how the job was done. I took copious notes on routines, dress code, dangers present, personalities of co-workers, etc., as well as step-by-step instructions on how each task is to be done. I also told the other employees something about Buz and gave them brochures about autism so they would understand him better.

That Saturday morning, I took the step-by-step instructions to the boss and asked her if that was the way she wanted the work done. She approved them and said that they would be a good teaching tool for any future employee, handicapped or not. (I later left copies of those lists with her for her use.) She asked if I felt that Buz would be able to do the work. I was pretty certain that he could handle the simpler tasks, but I was not real sure about the more complicated ones. He had never done anything like that before. She asked that he begin Tuesday.

Over the weekend, I got out our yardstick at home and taught Buz how to measure things to the eighth of an inch, because that skill would be needed in his new job. He caught on quickly.

Tuesday morning, I urged him to shower, shampoo, and shave, and showed him what kind of clothes would be appropriate to wear. I reminded him to comb his hair. He happily complied.

We then went together to the frame shop that afternoon and entered through the employee’s entrance. After introducing him to everyone, I showed him the first thing he was to do each workday – wash his hands with the special soap provided. Then we went over to the pile of matboard scraps, where I showed him how to measure, mark, and file them. They were to be filed numerically. (I taught him that first because I knew Buz could do it fairly easily. Once he mastered this, I reasoned, he would then feel confident enough to try something more complex.)

Shrink-wrapping ready-made frames with cellophane caused me some anxiety because the machines involved would get very hot. In teaching him this task, I stressed the danger and made sure he handled the equipment safely. After a few times, he got the hang of it and always, without fail, obeyed the safety rules. (Being autistic worked to his advantage here. Once he learned the routine, he never deviated from it.)

The actual framing of various projects was much more difficult. It consisted of thirty-six steps, some of which required making judgment calls. I tried to break the steps down into sections and keep them as concrete as possible. Where judgment was required, I found he was able to handle some parts, but not others. When he was unable to discern too-much from just-right, I advised him to ask one of his co-workers, who were always around and happy to help.

These co-workers were a pleasure to work with. They were watching me as I taught Buz, and one even volunteered help if she was closer to him than I was when he had a question. She cheerfully showed Buz how to do the project she was working on, too. That assured me that, once I was gone, he would still have allies there.

The duties assigned to Buz kept multiplying. He was also asked to vacuum the showroom and empty the trash, which he did easily.

When it came time to learn to cut glass to frame size, he was apprehensive. He was, naturally, afraid that he would cut himself. His co-worker showed him how to handle glass safely. (“Never slide your finger along the glass’ cut edge. That’s how people cut their fingers.“) Within a few days, he was working competently with glass, cutting and cleaning it.

He never got hurt by any of the things I anticipated – heat or glass. The only injury he has gotten has been a couple paper cuts from the matboards. And he does not even get them anymore.

Physically, he proved himself even more capable than I thought. Now it was the behavior we had to work on.

Buz loves to talk, but he does not pick up on the subtle cues people give when they are too busy to talk. In some stages of framing, his co-workers really have to concentrate; but Buz is not able to judge when that is. I asked his co-workers to let him know in such a situation that it is “quiet time”. (That has been a familiar phrase in his life for many years.) At home, I practiced with him, showing him the difference between talking enough and talking too much. We did this by role playing.

When he had any questions about policy, technique, or what-can-I-do-next, I encouraged him to ask the boss. He soon felt comfortable doing that. Shortly afterward, she learned that it works best when she makes out a “to-do list” before he gets there, so he will automatically know what needs to be done next. It took some work to get him to accept the fact that he could go on to #4 if someone was using the part of the table where #3 would be performed.

Generally, Buz was given his paycheck every two weeks. One day, though, it was almost time to go home and he still had not gotten paid. Before I could stop him, he went into the showroom, where the boss was helping a customer, and asked about his paycheck. As soon as we got out of there, I let him know that that was a very unwise thing to do. For the next few days, I told him over and over to always wait until the boss is alone before discussing things like that. I had him write a note of apology to her and we delivered it the next day. Luckily, she is a gracious lady and let it pass. (I notice now that, whenever the paychecks are to be given out earlier or later than usual, she lets Buz know ahead of time. Smart lady!)

As Buz was able to do more and more on his own, I moved from my original spot beside him to a couple steps behind him. Then, as time went on, I moved to a spot across the room, then volunteered to go buy soft drinks for everyone and run errands, leaving the building for about fifteen minutes at a time. At first, Buz did not want me to leave. I assured him I would be back in fifteen minutes with his beloved Dr. Pepper, so he relented. As I did this each day, it got easier for him, until finally it did not bother him at all anymore.

At that point, four months after Buz had started work, his boss and I agreed that it was time for me to do some serious “fading.” I started by taking Buz to work, then leaving and coming back an hour later to finish the day with him. (Of course, I told him ahead of time this would be happening and how proud we were that he was able to work alone, just like regular people do.) My time away increased by thirty to sixty minutes each time, until I was completely faded. Within a few weeks, he was working with complete independence! To celebrate, I treated the whole family to dinner at Buz’s favorite restaurant.

I then followed up every week or two, asking the boss how things were going and letting her know I was available to come back if she would like for Buz to learn anything new. Everything is going fine, and we are all pleased with the results.

When I received my Employment Specialist Training certificate from the University of Oklahoma, Buz proudly framed it for me himself.

. . . . Oh, one other thing. Last week, Buz got a letter from the workshop, asking if he still wants to be on their waiting list. He threw it away.

This is a revision of my article that was originally published in the Autism Society of America’s magazine Advocate, Vol. 25, No. 3, in the fall of 1993. Since then, the frame shop has been sold to Janice Kirksey. Buz’s angels must have been smiling on him because Janice has been wonderful. She chose to keep Buz employed there. Now, nine years later, he’s still working at the frame shop and still loves it, especially on pay day.