Is Your Teen with Special Needs Ready for a Job?

Is Your Teen with Special Needs Ready for a Job?

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Things to consider when helping your child enter the job market

Do you remember your first job? Those of us from previous decades pretty much all had jobs while we were in high school. My brother worked at Wendy’s to save for a car. My sister worked as a character at the local amusement park so she could do shows and get paid. I worked as a food server at a senior-living center before I was 16 so I could save money to move out.

My own kids didn’t work in high school (two have disabilities that made school more than enough of a struggle), but my daughter, Miranda, who has an intellectual disability, got her first job (also as a food server) a few months after high school. She had a job coach help her create a résumé, apply for jobs, and prepare for interviews, and then go with her to learn the job. It took only a few shifts, and she was on her own.

So what makes a teen/young adult with special needs ready for work? It’s a combination of soft skills, self-advocacy, stamina, speed, and motivation. Let’s break those down so you can determine if your teen is ready for a job.

Soft skills. Being on time and well groomed, wearing appropriate clothes, following rules/policies, and accepting feedback are just a few of the soft skills kids with special needs should know before they start working.

Adam got a job on his own at the coffee shop within walking distance of his house. He was great with the customers and a quick learner. But his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder got in his way, and he overslept for a shift. His boss gave him another chance, but he blew it when he went out hiking with his friends and didn’t show up for his shift. He was too embarrassed to return his employee shirt and apron.

Adam lived with his dad, who made things too easy for Adam. His dad gave him money and a car, and he didn’t expect Adam to do chores or get a job. When Adam moved in with his mom at age 21, he didn’t have the soft skills he needed to get and hold down a job. He also had the attitude that most entry-level jobs were beneath him, so he wasn’t willing to do his best. His mom discussed his options, set expectations, and made sure she didn’t make life too comfortable for him.

Try this: hand over responsibility for getting up on time, doing chores, hygiene, clothing, etc. This may take awhile if you have been doing everything for your teen. If so, start with one thing, such as having your teen use an alarm clock on the weekend (and don’t wake him up if he sleeps through it!).

Self-advocacy. Skills that fall under this heading include talking to a supervisor, making schedule requests, asking for help, requesting accommodations, and resigning (not quitting).

When Caitlin got a job as a server, she took her responsibilities seriously and asked questions and made sure she was on time, had a clean uniform, and tied her hair back. She learned her job quickly, but when her supervisor started asking her to work double shifts at the last minute, she didn’t know how to handle it, so she kept saying yes. She didn’t have the stamina or the need to work that much, but she didn’t know how to speak up for herself. Her mom realized Caitlin was afraid to not do something she was asked to do and that she was being taken advantage of, which was interfering with her health and happiness.

Caitlin struggles to speak directly with her supervisor, so she is learning to say “Let me get back to you” when asked to add shifts and then follows up with a call or text.

Try this: make sure your teen understands her disability and what accommodations she needs at work. Does your teen need things written down? Does she need to take a picture of the schedule? Has she asked if she can text the manager with questions?

Stamina. Skills include working four hours straight, multiple days in row, during the late shift and/or early shift.

I knew my daughter was ready for an up-to-eight-hours work shift because each day for the previous three years of high school, she attended classes all day and then worked out with the girls swim team after school. Her day went from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., and she rarely complained or crashed when she got home. She also had been volunteering at the recycling center in three- to four-hour shifts without a break.

A couple of job coaches I work with have said that most teens who have been given too many breaks at school are not able to handle four-hour shifts. They complain about being tired, get less done, and don’t do their share of the workload.

Try this: look for a volunteer job that has longer shifts, and be realistic about how long your child can stay on task. Employers are going to expect your child to do the full job with only minimal breaks the whole time she is on the clock.

Speed. Skills include working at an expected pace and being willing to take suggestions to increase the pace.

Joe, a friend’s 19-year-old son with autism, got a job as a dishwasher at a senior center. Although this hot and dirty entry-level job is undervalued, Joe was ready for a paying job. He had volunteer experience, had gotten to and from high school on his own, and was eager to join the workforce. He had a job coach work with him on-site the first week or so, and he quickly got the hang of it. But Joe wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the needs of the dining-room staff and got slower the more anxious he felt. He also forgot to clock in, so his paycheck didn’t reflect the actual hours he worked. Joe had no idea how to talk to the manager, so he just stopped going to work.

Try this: before your teen applies for another job, he needs to work on completing tasks more quickly, understanding the written (and unwritten) rules, and making a checklist to ensure he finishes every step. He can work on those at home by making a checklist for a specific task, such as cleaning the bathroom, and timing himself so his pace improves.

Motivation. Skills include wanting to work, wanting to do a good job, wanting to add new skills, and willing to look for and change jobs.

My daughter excels in this area. She wants to move out, so she is highly motivated to work and save money. She brings that desire to her job at an assisted-living center. Though she dislikes the demanding residents, she has learned to smile and be gracious even when they are rude. Miranda is getting faster at the tasks at hand and can see how that makes things go more smoothly overall for her and the residents. She tries to address each resident by name and help ensure each one has an enjoyable meal. Because of the paycheck and a good reference, and also because being a working girl is important to her self-esteem, Miranda won’t quit this job until she has a new one (which she is looking for). Though she won’t ever be the manager, employers value her attitude, work ethic, and charm!

Do any of your children with special needs have jobs? How has working affected their life?

Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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