Opening doors to the workplace for those with autism

It’s hard to improve your job skills if you’ve never had a job. It’s hard to be around actual people in the workplace if you’ve spent your days with virtual people on a computer game, alone in your room. Then someone opens a door and everything changes.

David Stidger was that someone. In 2012, he founded Open Door, a job coaching agency that helps those on the autism spectrum learn skills that most people take for granted: how to introduce yourself. How to talk to coworkers. How to show up on time at the office and finish the tasks you’ve been assigned. How to groom yourself and dress like everybody else.

When Stidger worked as a therapist in an early intervention program, parents of autistic children didn’t know how to help them as they moved into adolescence and beyond. They called to ask for help with their almost adult children.

Stidger made a career decision. He left his position to start Open Door. He hired two job coaches, both trained in Applied Behavior Analysis. One of them, Lauren Rosenthal, leads clients through mock job interviews, “small talk” conversations, and lessons on what she calls the science of making friends.

She teaches clients that conversations need to be reciprocal. Eye contact is essential. Knowing how to end a conversation is important, too.

“Don’t just walk out of the room,” she says, “Tell the person it was nice to talk to him.”

These skills come naturally to most of us, but people on the autism spectrum have to learn what to say, what to wear, how to figure out what someone’s facial expressions mean.

Is the boss mad or is he just concentrating?

A common misconception about people on the spectrum is that they may not be bright. Both Stidger and Rosenthal emphasize their clients’ intelligence.

“They may never have walked a dog, but they can excel in applied math and physics. They may have graduated from high school with a high GPA, but they don’t have confidence to move to the next level of adult life. A few of them have college degrees, but they still need coaching,” Stidger says.

Open Door contracts with families for three month training sessions. During that time, clients go to work for local companies looking to have a diverse workforce. The job coach goes with them for a few hours a week. The company pays nothing, but gets a lot in return: someone willing to learn a new skill and become part of a team. Some companies may offer a position to Open Door clients, but that’s not promised.

What is promised is support. Open Door pays its clients so they can have that satisfaction that comes from seeing a bank account with their name on it and dollars that they’ve earned on the job. They deposit their paycheck, just like every other worker.

One client, Trevor Alsup, has learned to bus tables, to operate Microsoft, to do data entry, and to make friends at his various work places, including Merrimack Hall. He’s become more independent, he says, and more confident. Since the pandemic shutdown, he’s missed his routine, his friends, and the feeling of being useful.

“He loves working,” his mother Cathy says. “He can’t wait to get back out there.”

The door is closed for now. But when it opens again, Trevor and the others will step on through.

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