What factors are most important to an individual’s success in the workplace? If this question was posed to a group of people, one might expect a range of answers including experience, education, work ethic, people skills, and the ability to problem solve. However, in working with young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism and learning differences at the College Internship Program (CIP), another answer rings especially true to us: one’s wellness. The dictionary defines wellness as “the quality or state of being in good health especially as an actively sought goal” (Merriam-Webster.com, Merriam Webster, 2015). While wellness is important for any employee’s success, it seems to be an even greater challenge with very profound effects for young adults on the autism spectrum.
In our experiences at the CIP Brevard Center, when wellness is suffering, it can have a detrimental effect on students’ work performance by negatively impacting Executive Functions (the ability to engage in purposeful, organized, goal-directed behavior). For example, if students are experiencing high levels of anxiety or depression, they might “shut down” and miss a work shift. If they are not getting the proper nutrition and hydration, they may not have the stamina to make it through the work day. If they were up late gaming and did not get a good night of sleep, they might miss their shift, be late, or lose focus. Also, they may struggle to write a report if they are hungry and tired because they may not be able to coherently organize their thoughts.
CIP Founder, Dr. Michael McManmon, recognized the importance of wellness in his own life and in the lives of our students. Dr. McManmon said “I noticed that I would have meltdowns when I did not eat, exercise or have quiet time. Upon learning of my diagnosis, I started to implement meditation, some yoga, swimming, and bicycling. And as a result, my emotional regulation skills increased.” Therefore, students meet with staff for individual and group appointments each week to work toward their individual wellness goals. At the CIP Brevard Center, students participate in a range of activities like tennis, basketball, fitness challenges, martial arts, etc. Some students even propose their own wellness activities such as getting a good workout by dancing to Dance Dance Revolution. Over weekends, many of the students participate in activities such as 5K runs, hikes, indoor rock climbing, surfing, and trips to the gym. They also discuss nutrition, hydration, and other wellness topics.
For young adults on the autism spectrum, maintaining wellness also requires management of their sensory challenges. When they are experiencing sensory overload, it can dramatically affect their ability to focus, communicate with others, and handle stressful work situations. Our occupational therapist works with students to create individualized sensory diets that can contribute to their overall wellness. Their sensory diets may include heavy lifting, pressure (through a firm massage or wearing weighted items), swinging, eating crunchy or chewy foods, and participating in physical activities such as swimming. In CIP wellness sessions, we teach appropriate self-stimming exercises such as using different pressure points to raise alertness or practicing deep breathing exercises to promote calmness. This, in turn, helps students to refocus and perform better.
But even with these supports, some students (as you would expect) still struggle with the motivation to fully utilize these resources. So, during one of the CIP Brevard Center collaborative meetings (with the Wellness, Academic, and Life Skills departments), staff discussed ways to motivate our students. Instead of using a chart or graph to track their weight and activities each week, we decided to use a game board to visually display their progress in a fun way. Then we awarded prizes for wellness milestones. We named it the “Greatest Wellness Winner Game.”
To track their activities, students have been using phone apps and photos. A student named Thea turns on her GPS to record her walking, takes a screen shot on her phone, and emails the picture to staff. Another student, Dan, uses the smartphone app “Map my Ride” (www.mapmyride.com) to record his bike riding mileage. For healthy meals and grocery shopping, students take pictures of what they purchase or meals they prepare for their roommates. They can also provide a grocery receipt to staff. Students can move one space on the game board for each wellness activity or healthy weight change they are able to verify, and two spaces if they accomplish a wellness goal independently. Each time a student lands on or passes a colored square on the game board (located every five spaces), he or she receives a prize and a raffle ticket for a bigger prize at the end of the game. Some prizes include gift cards donated by local businesses. Other prizes are more creative. For example, CIP staff members offered to throw a student karaoke party or give a martial arts demonstration. Another raffle prize is the ability for a student to pick out the activity for his or her wellness group one week. For workplaces or programs that would like to implement their own wellness game, we suggest creative prizes such as an extra “dress down” day, lunch with a manager, or perhaps something wacky like having administrators wear Halloween costumes on a given day.
As a result of the wellness game, a number of students are improving their activity levels, eating better, having positive weight changes and staying motivated. They are coming in more alert, well rested, less stressed, and eager to tell us about their activities over the past week. When asking students how the game and CIP wellness activities have impacted them, Dan said that Lance, his wellness coordinator, makes working out fun. Another student said that she has lost 40 pounds over the last year and, as a result, she can physically navigate her work environment much easier and is less depressed. In turn, her stamina and work performance have improved.
One CIP Brevard Center college student with Asperger’s was especially inspired by CIP’s Greatest Wellness Winner game. In the past, she skipped meals and binged at night. As a result, her weight went up substantially, her self-esteem went down, and her anxiety increased. She would make a plan to complete the tasks for the day, but she was so distracted by her frustrations with herself that she began to miss deadlines. As a result, she struggled to even get out of bed to face the day. She fell further behind on assignments, which only deepened her feelings of stress and despair. Unfortunately, despite her inconsistent efforts to show up and look positive to others, it appeared that she did not care. This became a concern at her college classes as well as her internship where she would frequently miss or arrive late.
Once she started participating in the wellness game, she began planning to eat throughout the day and declined temptation to snack on sweets. She started to lose weight and began to progress around the wellness game board. She found herself getting raffle tickets and grab bag prizes. She had a sense of pride, began to sleep better, ate better and felt more relaxed. With her basic needs met, she was ready to begin making consistent progress toward her goal of graduating college and creating social connections to advance her career. She started planning and completing her assignments early, which further boosted her confidence. If she ran late or fell behind on something, she would call. She still got upset when she felt like she did not meet expectations, but because her anxiety was lower, she was able to cope and recover faster. It has been exciting to see her growth and success.
For others trying to help individuals with autism and sensory issues improve their wellness, some additional tips which are provided in “Autism and Learning Differences: An Active Teaching Toolkit” (M. McManmon Ed.D., 2015) include:
- Telling these young men and women that when their own needs are taken care of, they will be stronger and more resilient to stress. Explaining that exercise is a powerful stress reliever – even though it may be the last thing they feel like doing. Any activity that raises their heart rate and makes them sweat is an effective way to lift their moods, increase energy, sharpen focus, and relax both the mind and body.
- Healthy eating can help each person get through stressful work days and avoid mood swings. (Sugar and caffeine zap energy.)
Explaining that while they cannot control everything, exercising, eating well, getting a good night’s sleep, and feeling fit, groomed, and ready to go each day will go a long way to coping with stress and emotional challenges at work.
As our CIP students continue to strengthen their wellness routines and better understand the importance of striving for good health, it is our hope that they will reap the benefits in the workplace (and in their personal lives) for many years to come!
Jennifer Kolarik serves as the Lead Career Coordinator for all six sites of the College Internship Program (CIP), Lance Haskins, is the Wellness Coordinator at the CIP Brevard Center in Melbourne, Florida and Ryan Therriault is the Lead Academic Coordinator. CIP (www.cipworldwide.org) is a comprehensive program serving teens and young adults with Asperger’s, Autism and other Learning Differences. CIP offers year-round and summer programs. A portion of this article was excerpted from Chapter 5, Autism and Learning Differences (An Active Learning Teaching Toolkit), by Dr. Michael McManmon Ed.D., published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London 2015.