Earlier this year, Val Citta at the Brevard County Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR) received a CIP Brevard 2016 Outstanding Internship Sponsor award. DNR has sponsored CIP Brevard interns for seven years. Val currently supervises two students and has been an incredible mentor to our students over the years. She goes above and beyond to ensure each internship experience is individualized to help each student flourish in their job skills. She communicates often with both myself and our students. I asked Val to share some of her thoughts about how others could also support young adults on the spectrum or with learning differences in the workplace.
Why did you decide to work with our students?
I discovered the invaluable resource of CIP student interns in 2009 when a former Natural Resources colleague, Debbie Coles, graciously “shared” one of her then “Brevard Center” interns with me. This intern was former student, Val. Having no experience with interns or getting help, I started Val off with a very simple task. I quickly learned that although Val very shy and quiet, she was a high performer that stayed on task and was capable of so much more. She even seemed grateful to be here. It was a great feeling to know that Val would go home prepared to join the workforce because of some of the things she learned in our office. It was also great to be caught up with the work she helped with. I was hooked! A real WIN/WIN.
What do you enjoy the most about working with our students? What have you learned when working with our students?
The thing I enjoy the most about working with CIP Brevard students is that I believe I learn as much or more from them than they learn from me. When a student struggles with a task or performs work differently that I expect, it tells me that I have failed to translate expectations. It forces me to consider a better way to communicate the directions of the task or have a conversation with the student about their own challenges and interests even. It keeps me sharp and reminds me to live outside my own head! Since many students come to us working to develop interpersonal skills, they sometimes start off a bit anxious and shy. It’s really a joy seeing those students learn to interact in the office, come out of their shell, and even share a funny joke or personal experience once we get to know each other. I cannot thank CIP enough for giving me an opportunity that has really opened a door to something I enjoy and entrusting me with students that really are the secret to my success.
What strategies you have implemented to assist them with their work tasks?
The strategies I rely on most are: open communication and flexibility with task assignment. I try very hard to create an environment where students and coaches feel comfortable working and talking with me about any issues they might have.
For flexibility, I never assign students tasks that are “deadline” oriented or “time certain” because I’d rather they have time to learn a skill thoroughly without those extra constraints. Interns typically assist me with managing and digitizing the Stormwater Inspection Files and preparing documents for scanning and destruction. Through lots of trial and error, I’ve developed a giant 11×17 spreadsheet that we call “the list” that breaks down each step of the inspection process start to finish. Each column is a step in the process. Students start in column 1 and can keep working through next steps all the way to end if they like. Along the way, a student might find they enjoy and do better at Step 3. That’s ok. I’ve set things up so that that student might have that option (most of the time). I offer the variety in the hope that students get a glimpse into what they might like to do for work in their own lives… and what they might NOT like to do! I find that this also fosters teamwork even if students don’t work together during the same shift. Students working on Step 3 might end up checking the work of students working on Step 2 in front of it, etc.
Can you offer any words of wisdom for other supervisors of individuals who are on the autism spectrum or who have learning differences?
- I am a big believer in emphasizing strengths vs weaknesses and truly believe the world needs different kinds of minds to work together (just like Dr. Temple Grandin talks about).
- Be calm, patient, and positive and realize there is more than one way to accomplish a task!
- Be attentive and observe body language along with verbal communication. Be aware of sensory issues that can affect these individuals.
- Ask questions if you’re not sure of something.
- Keep the lines of communication open.
- Be clear and consistent with expectations.
- Whenever possible, draft written instructions to back up verbal directions.
- If time permits, have the intern proof-read instructions to ensure they are clear.
About the Author
Jennifer Kolarik is the Lead Career Coordinator at CIP Brevard. As Lead Coordinator, Jennifer trains all other CIP Career Coordinators, provides ongoing support and resources, develops new curriculum, and leads the department meetings. In addition, she has also presented at many conferences and workshops about how to prepare young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and Learning Differences for success.