The last blog I wrote was about my son’s graduation from Art School. Now that he is done with school, his dream is to move to Hollywood, work for Disney, and become a famous animator. In the best-case scenarios, there are people who listen to him expound on his dreams, kind of nod their heads and humor him. In the worst-case scenarios, there are people who laugh at him and dismiss him as unbearably childish and unrealistic. As a parent, I always want to encourage my children’s dreams, while also feeling a parental responsibility to help them recognize what reality looks like. As an artist myself though, I know that reality is not always what it seems, and that you don’t get anywhere in the art world if you don’t dream big. And anyway, who am I to say that his dreams won’t come true? You make dreams come true moving step by step through the opportunities that either come your way, or that you help bring into being by networking and plain old hard work, (and of course a lot of luck of being in the right place at the right time.)
So, he took the first step to get himself closer to his dream, applied for a local summer art job that was posted on the job board of his college, got the interview, got the job, and was elated! His first art job, and the first job that he had applied for straight out of college. Things looked rosy.
His job coach checked in to see if she could help him out by doing some shadowing. The supervisor assured her that that wasn’t necessary, that she had done all the training with him and that he did well and was succeeding at the job. Things still look rosy. He really enjoyed the job, was super proud of himself at the end of each day, though he admitted that there were some stressors and challenges that came up occasionally.
After a few weeks on the job, his job coach checked in again and was assured that not only were things going well, but this summer job could also likely turn into a year-round job because they always needed people who weren’t in school to stay on. We all were breathing happily. So nice when things look rosy.
Two days later he was fired. It took four days to get the clear picture of what happened. He was horrified at the initial reasons given, swearing that none of that had happened. Eventually a different story emerged that he acknowledged had happened. The final story was far less awful than the initial reports, and very questionable if these were grounds for being fired…the reasons given were definitely social mistakes, definitely reasons to speak with him and give him some feedback and explain that he had made poor decisions in those instances. But to fire him?
Back story to the job requirements: the job was to take souvenir photographs for guests at a local recreation site (purposely being vague here). The company emphasized over and over that it was of utmost importance to take as many photographs as possible as this was how they made money. My son took that directive very much to heart and was very intent on taking as many pictures as humanly possible during each of his shifts.
So what were his breaches of protocol that led to him being fired? One was that because of something that one of his team members was doing, which was out of their control but that wasn’t clear to my son, his job of taking as many pictures as possible was made harder. So he was yelling at that team member to change what they were doing. Not cool. But no one gave him that feedback. And he never realized that what he had done was not cool. They just shut down the photo booth for the day and sent him home, citing a problem with staffing, but not actually telling him that HE was the problem with staffing.
If you don’t recognize a problem, you can’t fix it. Or as he says, if I knew better, I would not have done that, so thinking “You should know better,” doesn’t ever help me know better.
The second reason that he was fired was a case of social faux pas: he was talking about scenes from Star Wars with a kid wearing a Star Wars shirt in a way that the parent didn’t like. So the parent went and complained to someone. But no one told my son directly that he should not have been speaking about these particular scenes; he was told that he had said something stupid.
When I finally got the full story, I can totally understand that a parent may have been upset about the conversation (apparently the kid was about 12 and my son was talking about some of the violent war scenes in one of the movies…why? I have no idea. I have never heard him talk about those scenes before.) I’m not sure that I would have gone to speak to someone else, I think I would have directly intervened in the conversation, but that’s just me maybe.
A major challenge for people with autism is not being able to read social cues. Not being able to see that this child, or this child’s parent, was uncomfortable with the interchange.
It may seem as though I am stating the obvious in these bold statements, but these things are obvious only to those who live in the world of people with disabilities, in the world of people who get confused by social interactions and struggle to follow social cues. Part of why I do what I do, leading programs about invisible disability awareness, is because none of this is obvious to anyone who doesn’t live in this slice of the world. While people know the word “autism” they don’t necessarily look at my son and think, “Oh, he just doesn’t know that this is not the way to work with other team members, or he just doesn’t see that he is making someone uncomfortable with the way that he is speaking.” They just look at him and think he’s not okay. And they may even be afraid of him. He’s a full-grown guy who doesn’t seem like he understands how to speak with other people.
When we finally got the full story of the reasons that he was fired, my son was horrified at the way his behavior had been perceived and was so sad that he had made his team-mates unhappy and made guests uncomfortable. He was sad that he lost the job of course, and humiliated that he had been fired, but more than anything he was horrified that he had made others uncomfortable.
He spends his days trying to understand the world. I wish the world would spend some time trying to understand him and other people like him.
Bottom line that we all learned: people with autism need a different kind of on-the-job training. When a supervisor says that he has done well with the training, we need to then say, “that’s awesome, now how can we do some more training regarding the inevitable social situations that are going to come up in this job and cause some stress for someone who isn’t super fluid with social interactions that are always full of surprises?” He can do the logistics, he can learn the technical end of things, and that is wonderful. And that makes people think that he doesn’t have a disability. What he and others like him need are extra days of training about the social interactions, all of the surprises, all of the possible changes to the technical routine. He needs role playing about the pace of the job, about what you do when someone gets impatient with you, how to read those social cues in the context of this job.
There is never a way to prepare for absolutely every contingency scenario, but there are definitely ways to prepare for many of them. Here’s to more on-the-job training for future art-world jobs, whenever they appear.
And here’s the song Social Cues Blues…things my son has struggled with over the years….