Autism Isn’t A Day Or Month

I’m a big supporter of raising awareness of causes and issues, encouraging people to rally to bring about change.  Yet when it comes to autism, a day or a month simply won’t suffice.

On various media outlets over the past few days, individuals have been sharing their insights into the realities of autism.  Some were identified as “experts” which, in my opinion, is a term that needs to be affixed carefully.  There was one – a mother – who spoke about raising her child with autism, sharing the realities with an emotional overlay that was as real as it gets.  This is the true expert.

Two of the other expert perspectives in particular stood out to me, each warranting a response and further discussion.  And while there may be those who might question from where I am gleaning my insights or upon what soapbox I’m standing, I’ll say that after spending 15+ years in the trenches in this arena both professionally and personally, I’ll take my chances.

One of the experts I’m referencing stated that parents need to push for services for their children.  Absolutely true.  Could not agree more nor cannot overemphasize the importance of parents taking charge in this regard.  Yet there was, and continues to be, a critical oversight here and one that is consistently overlooked.  It’s that parents need to learn *how* to push for services for their children, particularly in school where the lion’s share of these services need to be accessed.

There is an assumption, and a misplaced one at that, that parents automatically or miraculously acquire these skills … that somehow these skills simply appear after their child receives an autism spectrum diagnosis.  And this assumption even occurs with parents themselves who, in their jobs or professions, may have skills that they “assume” will transfer to parent advocacy and school interactions, but sadly do not.

Just like the social skills/social thinking that their children need to learn through direct instruction, parents also need to be taught how to navigate through the educational arena in order to secure the services that experts continue to state (and parents know) their children need.  And need now.  I often say that special education requires a master’s level of skills that continue to evolve over time.  Telling parents that they need to work hard over the long haul to get their children what they need is one thing.  Teaching them how to do so is another thing entirely.

The other expert on a different media outlet stated that as children reach high school, they need to learn life skills.  What?  As they reach high school?  Ever hear the expression “too little, too late?”  Here’s what’s wrong with this statement.

Part 1 — we first need to acknowledge that there’s a stigma attached to the phrase “life skills” so we need to rename it.  Parents (and others) equate it with things that, for many children on the autism spectrum including those with Asperger’s Syndrome, simply do not apply.  But there’s another huge bucket of life skills that they most definitely *do* need to learn (and be taught) in order to have any hope of successfully transitioning after high school graduation into college, employment, or independent living.  Once we eliminate the barriers created by the words “life skills” and broaden what it means, we can then begin to ensure that these skills are taught starting in preschool…and for all children.

Part 2 — when the teen reaches high school, it’s far too late to start thinking about the “life skills” they will need to transition into the adult world.  Even though transition planning is now supposed to begin at age 14, most schools pay little attention to the skills our children need to live as adults in the world.  We don’t start to teach reading when the child is 12 years old, so why would we wait until the child is a teen to begin teaching these critical skills?  Skills that are considered “life skills” need to hold equal weight with academic skills in terms of their importance.  And for some children, they’re even more important.  This isn’t an either/or scenario and parents should not be forced to choose (and this happens frequently) between helping their child improve their reading level or how to complete a job application or to live with a roommate in college.

The attention to autism this month and any month helps to raise the volume of discussion about a diagnosis impacting families, businesses, and our society.  And whether you believe the recent CDC stats or not, the reality is that there are millions of children and teens today with an autism spectrum diagnosis growing up to become part of our adult world.  As future employees, tomorrow’s college students, and the next generation of parents themselves.

Examining how we’re approaching autism is not an easy topic nor task, but real change is never easy.  What it does require is for us to honestly assess whether we’re providing parents with what they need to effectively help their children succeed in school and beyond.  And it also requires us to closely examine whether we’re truly doing what we need to do to help our children reach adulthood as prepared as possible.  This requires more than a day or month.  It requires a lifetime.

 

Beating The Drum A Bit More…Telecommuting, Etc.

For the past few weeks, everyone has been either talking or reading about Marissa Mayer’s decision to end telecommuting for Yahoo employees.  I’ve read just about every viewpoint – those who support it, those who vehemently disagree with it, those who believe it’s smart business, those who are waiting for Mayer to realize the error of her ways.

I’ve already made my perspectives clear on it – it’s a bad business decision, the impact of which go beyond the in-house fallout and anticipated revolving door of exit interviews (if Yahoo even cares to listen) to broader concerns about how the CEO world is going to react/respond.  No question this is a major blow to the years of progress made in the workplace flexibility arena.  But there’s a little more to be said.

I just read a 2011 Forbes article  – “What Employees Want More Than A Raise,” which reviewed the top drivers of retention.  Care to guess one which was at the top of the list?  Respect.  Hum … respect.  Let’s see…

  • Can a company be viewed as “respecting” its employees if their diverse needs and complicated work/life balance issues are ignored…or worse, shoved aside entirely?
  • Can a company support any contention that it “respects” its employees if management institutes mandates (i.e. you will be at your desk every day at 9:00 a.m.) vs. opening up for discussion – yes, across the organization – operational changes being evaluated (i.e. we’re exploring ways to modify our telecommuting policies and are asking for your input)?
  • Can a company view themselves as “respecting” the manager/employee relationship when decisions are made based upon explanations (i.e. the need for communication and collaboration) that simply don’t add up?

It’s probably clear where I’m heading with this…the answer is no.  Respect is far more than a term in a mission statement or something taught in a Management 101 class.  It’s recognizing that communication happens top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top, and side-to-side.  It’s understanding that collaboration means working together on difficult issues, appreciating the impact major decisions will have on employees, and offering real, viable options that truly demonstrate that every employee is valuable and, you got it, respected.

No…I don’t see anything about this decision that demonstrates respect.  Rather, whether it was Yahoo’s way to weed out non-performers or demonstrate that they can exercise control over their workforce, it’s pretty apparent – no matter your perspective on the decision itself – that “respect” for its employees was not even a discussion point during that meeting.

Few Working Parents Are Saying “Ya-hoo” Today

Having just returned from the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) annual forum in Baltimore, discussion surrounding Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) and her decision to end telecommuting for employees bubbled up throughout.   No question, many (including me) are talking about this business decision, and it’s one that deserves plenty of discussion.

Back in the dark ages – when I began working in the work/life arena, terms like job-sharing and telecommuting required definitions and explanations.  They were foreign concepts to many and those remotely familiar with them quickly concluded that it was something the “other guy” may consider doing, but not them.  We’ve come a long way…until Mayer slammed on the brakes.

Progress means taking two steps forward and one step back.  We try a new strategy or program and then have to pivot and adjust.  But when something that has been earned – whether a promotion or the ability to work remotely – is taken away under the guise of wanting to improve communication and collaboration, it becomes a new game.

Communication is a process that involves sharing information, facts, and ideas.  Collaboration is a method of bringing together minds and talents.  Neither requires that people breathe the same air space or pass each other en route to the cafeteria.  At least not every day.  We’ve long since passed the “punch in at 9/punch out at 5 (if you’re lucky) and I need to see you sitting at your desk whenever I pass by” workplace, and those who have fought for progress in the area of workplace flexibility are not going to relent.  Nor should they.

Anyone who has a pre-schooler, teen with a disability, elderly parent, sick spouse, or simply the desire to adjust their work location as needed would agree that this mandate is a no-go.  It’s one thing for an organization to be *working toward* a culture whereby flexible work options are part of their operations, but quite another to have it implemented and then taken away.  Since when did we revert back to measuring productivity by face-time?  And what measures is Mayer using to conclude that communication, collaboration and productivity have suffered because of telecommuting employees?   Certainly she must share.

Along with up-ending the lives of employees in this organization, there’s a broader concern, one that I shared with colleagues at AWLP’s forum.  Other CEOs – because we know that CEOs communicate and collaborate with other CEOs albeit not in the same building – will now either be re-examining their own flexible work/telecommuting policies under a new lens or will be concluding that no…this entire concept isn’t for their organization because if it didn’t work for Yahoo, it won’t work for them.

A business is its employees.  Not its building or products.  Not its intellectual capital or services.  It’s their people.  Diverse individuals struggling every day to balance their work responsibilities with home lives.  Organizations compete for “best company” status and spend millions recruiting and retaining top performers.

Some things we know …

  • The emphasis on employee health (mental and physical), stress, balance, and flexibility are core business issues and concerns.
  • Employees place a huge emphasis on the importance of their leaders/managers listening to their needs and responding accordingly.
  • Workplace flexibility is always at the top of the list of reasons why an employee joins or remains with an organization.

Yahoo’s short and long-term turnover numbers, exit interview results, and their retrenched recruitment strategies (and goals) will definitely be things I want to see.  And while the extent of the fallout will take some time to assess, of this I feel certain – those employees impacted by this archaic policy will either let their feet do the talking or are saying a lot of words these days, most of which would sound something like this … “*@#!!*#*!!”.

Leveling The Playing Field

Parents of high school kids know … it’s SAT and ACT season again.  Stress is on overdrive as everyone is striving for ways to improve scores – tutoring, prep classes, working through the huge practice books at home.  All eyes are focused on the thrill of receipt – opening the mail to find those glorious oversized packages with writing on the outside that says “You’re accepted” or “Welcome.”  Believe me, I’ve been there with my own child so understand it well.

I just read an article in The New York Times entitled, “It Takes A B.A. To Find A Job As A File Clerk” which focuses on an Atlanta law firm that requires every employee – including the in-house courier making $10/hour – to have a bachelor’s degree.  The firm’s managing partner said that this requirement shows that every employee has made “a commitment” to their future and not just a paycheck.  Sounds reasonable since college is really about honing skills needed in most every line of employment – organization, planning, meeting deadlines, self-discipline, flexibility, and teamwork.

But here’s the problem with requiring all employees to have a degree – there’s a big difference between equal and fair.  Equal means the same but fair means, well, fair.  Respecting and supporting individual differences and recognizing that not everyone fits into the same box.  It means understanding that a 5th Grade child with dyslexia reading from a 3rd Grade book and receiving an “A” on an assignment is fair even if others are reading from the 5th Grade text.  That a college student who requires extra time and a quiet room to complete an exam is fair even if others are taking the same in a lecture hall with 150 other students.  It’s about evaluating each person as an individual and on their own merits vs. expecting the same for all.  This “life lesson” begins in school and since school is about preparing children for life, shouldn’t the same principle apply to the workplace as well?

Expecting every employee to hold a B.A. in order to secure employment means that many bright, capable, and talented young people will be overlooked.   Believe me, I’m a huge proponent of college and helping all students receive their degree, yet not everyone can reach this milestone.  For some it’s financial.  For others it’s access.  No matter the reason, it’s unfair and unreasonable to assume that the reason a young person does not hold an undergraduate degree is because they don’t aspire for success or don’t want to invest in themselves.

There are many students with learning differences, Asperger’s Syndrome, or ADD – with amazing skills and who would be top performers in the workplace – who are unable to navigate the complexities of college.  Maybe they tried but it didn’t work.  Maybe they were told to not even consider college as an option.  Regardless of the reason, concluding that a young person without a B.A. is only focused on a paycheck is an arbitrary measure and one that places barriers where, in all likelihood, enormous barriers already exist.  And this includes even when, according to a recruiter referenced in the same article, 800 resumes are received for one job.

We all know people sans a college degree who have made contributions to every area of life – business, the arts, philanthropy, many achieving far more success (recognizing that success is subjective) than those with B.A.’s.  And this certainly includes many with learning or similar differences for whom their commitment to themselves is defined by the struggles they have endured and their “never give up” attitude to forge ahead.  College is wonderful, no doubt, yet self-respect and self-worth trumps it every time.  There’s a reason it’s called a playing field and not a playing box.  Fields are larger and allow for many to play.  Whether school, employment, or life, the larger the field the better.

So What Makes A Best Company “Best”

I admit it…I love reading the annual “best company” lists.   Seeing what new organizations have finally reached the holy grail and those that continue to rise to the top year after year by setting the employee engagement and retention bar high.   It’s an added bonus to read about the “perks”, or what I call “mini-benefits”, companies provide for employees.  They get more creative (or outrageous) year after year.

This year’s Fortune list is no different.   To not share a few of my favorites would be like recommending a vacation spot sans photos so yes, a handful follow below.  But first is a shout-out to the tenacious HR and work/life pros whose efforts to sell these ideas to the C-suite when budgets are being cut is exactly what HR is all about…remaining firmly focused on meeting and exceeding the needs of their employees.

So which companies really grabbed my attention this year and why?

  • Boston Consulting Group – issues a “red zone report” to flag when an employee is working excessive long weeks (now *this* is a genuine focus on work/life balance and concerns for the health/stress of employees).
  • Salesforce.com – provides 48 hours of paid time to volunteer (great way to support having a life and involvement outside of the office).
  • Alston & Bird – provides health coverage for autism, infertility, and marriage counseling (talk about an organization that understands and is willing to support life’s “real” issues and complexities).
  • ARI – offers unlimited tuition reimbursement (this is career development on overdrive and supports the importance of continuous learning).
  • Teksystems – encourages employees to “share almost everything” about their personal lives (not sure how this is implemented, but it definitely establishes an environment geared toward breaking down barriers on issues that are typically left unspoken).

It’s easy to see why these organizations achieved “best company” status.  Their bottom-line success is directly tied to an organizational culture that “walks the talk” when it comes to understanding and supporting the diverse nature of their respective workforces and their needs.  HR may have “made the case,” however these organizations clearly have leaders who set the tone. But wait…there’s more.

The dog talent show and bring your dog to work day (not sure why all the focus on dogs – what about cats or rabbits).  Horseshoe throwing lessons.  “Pie your manager” competitions.  Mid-morning cider and donuts.  Steak cookouts.  On-site farmers markets (very cool, I must say).

Are these fun?  Unusual?  Great fodder for social media photos?  You bet, but there’s a huge difference between providing health coverage for infertility and offering donuts with cider (and I enjoy cider too).  The former drills down into issues – often complex, messy, and human – whereas the latter is like sprinkles on a cake – they may make things look better, but don’t necessarily change the taste.

Companies that have achieved “best” status have done so because they’ve addressed the real needs and tough issues facing their employees.  They’ve met employees where they are in their lives with an honest recognition and response, demonstrating their willingness – and desire – to do something about the life cycle challenges their employees are facing today or may face tomorrow.

Ask any employee who works at these organizations and I guarantee that a nod of approval to volunteer in their community or to be told to reduce their work hours to better manage their stress trumps bringing their dog to work for the day anytime.  We’re a culture that often uses words without really understanding their meaning.  For this year’s 100 “best” companies, the meaning is as it is intended … “that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable.”

The Juggle & Struggle Of Work/Life

The supermarket is a great place to tap into the pulse of people’s lives.  I don’t eavesdrop, but discussions often occur in such a way that I’m sure the people doing the talking must think they’re in a bubble and can’t be overheard.  I could write a book on the things I’ve heard while shopping for bread and grapes.

Standing at the deli counter over the weekend, I heard two women — who had not seen each other in a while — sharing their respective “tsoris” (Yiddish for suffering or hurt).  One was doing most of the talking about her elderly father who needed to move into an assisted living facility while her pre-teen child was going through different angst.  I could relate (and wanted to say so) since I went through the independent living/assisted living/nursing home/hospice nightmare with my own father several years ago while my child was dealing with bullying in school.  I could see in her face — and I only glanced quickly — that she was barely functional.

There was no way to know whether this woman was also working outside of the home but if so, her candle was not burning at both ends but was about to be extinguished.  Issues of this magnitude have a significant impact on the job.   Anyone who has a life knows all too well how family issues impact all else.  And because life isn’t linear nor do these life situations present themselves in succinct packages where you deal with one thing, complete it, and move onto the next, chaos becomes a way of existence.

Work/life is a “juggle and a struggle” but just as importantly, it’s not an either/or scenario.  While every employee at every life stage is dealing with different issues, one thing is for sure … it’s a rare individual who is facing just one work/life challenge.  Rather, issues often arise together or back-to-back, creating a push-pull ripe with conflict and forcing a rapid shift in priorities, all while taking a daily toll on the individual in every aspect of life.

A single person vs. a working parent.  Someone with medical issues vs. someone facing retirement.  An employee with financial pressures vs. one with elder care needs.  Every need and situation is different and “best” companies are constantly searching for ways to respond.  Yet it’s essential that organizations also recognize that it’s not an either/or scenario … that many employees are dealing with more than one issue and many times, more than one at a time.

Easing the pain requires a combination of solutions and an understanding that when one thing abates, another may quickly take its place.  Or that some issues are never discussed and fly under the radar.  Sometimes an employee can barely catch his/her breath before it hits the fan again and while the fan keeps on spinning, so does the employee.

There’s really no difference between the ebb and flow of business and the ebb and flow of life.  With one exception.  I’ve yet to hear anyone in the supermarket talking about profit margins or sales quotas, but do hear plenty about marriages, children, parents, divorces, foreclosures, and the need for vacations.  It’s not that people aren’t thinking about work deadlines and projects, but they’re certainly not discussing them at the deli counter.