One Small Step Towards Self-Regulation

How to teach your teen with autism to request a break

Self –regulation is a needed life skill  not practiced  by most teenagers. Often teens on the spectrum need sensory breaks to help them self-regulate, yet some are unable to communicate the need for one. If you are a parent or an educator, you may want to consider teaching the teen to request a break using a “ I need a break” card.

Let’s  say you have a student that you work one-on-one with for a one hour slot of time. Every time you sit down to work with him, after about 20 minutes he gets up and leaves the worktable and there is no holding him back.  What you need to do is teach him to communicate to you when he needs a break,  and allow him  to have  those needed breaks within reason.   Here is one way to do that: Continue reading »

Preparing for The Real World of Work

“Jeremy does not like jobs with physical activities but likes to work with ideas and be able to tell others what to do…. As the case manager, I see Jeremy’s strong assets like working data, communicating with people to purchase/buy/manage a business. He is able to do gross motor activities, but often finds fine motor activities difficult and frustrating. Jeremy needs more opportunities exploring jobs and finding out what he would do to have fun and earn money.  These last two ideas are very important to Jeremy.”

– Allan Gustafson, Interview with Jeremy Sicile-Kira, Transition Year 07-08

Like all parents, my husband and I worry  about our son, Jeremy, and what his future will look like. Jeremy is now 20 years old, and with  the economic situation being what it is, we are doubly concerned about the financial aspects of Jeremy’s  life as an adult. But as the saying goes, worry gets you nowhere – fast. Preparing, planning and creative thinking is a better alternative to wringing our hands.

When thinking about employment for your child or student  on the spectrum, there are a few  aspects that need to be focused on:  the life skills he or she needs to learn; a clear understanding of what employers look for in an employee; the interests and strengths of the person on the spectrum; the usefulness of mentors; and the different employment structures currently available.

Necessary Life Skills

In my latest book, Autism Life Skills : From Communication and Safety to Self-Esteem and More – 10 Essential Abilities Every Child Needs and Deserves to Learn, the ten skill areas covered are important for all aspects of life, whether  at school, at home, or in the community. Some of the skills  such as self-regulation, independence, social relationships,  and self-advocacy are  important  for getting and keeping a job. The topic of earning a living is the last chapter in my book, because being able to get and hold a job  is really a culmination of  all the life skills  hopefully learned during the school –age years, whether a person is on or off the spectrum. For example, for someone to be accepted in a workplace, they must be able to control their emotional and sensory meltdowns. A certain amount of independence is needed at most jobs. Understanding that you should speak to your boss differently than you would to  a colleague is important to know in most work situations. Self advocacy skills are  necessary in order to request what you need to get the job done.

Life skills in general  should be broken down and translated into IEP goals and objectives, especially during middle school, high school and  transition years. Obviously, everyone is different and the skill level reached for each of these skills is different depending on the person, but every student needs to learn a minimum in order to live and work in the community.

What Employers Look for When Hiring

Too often,  when  looking for a job placement for  a person on the spectrum, people take the approach of asking for handout, or a favor. We need to  approach this differently. I took a look at the top 10 skills and attributes most employers  look for as identified by the Bureau of Labor (Job Outlook, 2003) and I discovered that many of those attributes are attributes people  on the spectrum have, yet rarely do we sell those attributes to prospective employers. Here’s  the top ten of what  employers look for: honesty and  integrity; a strong work ethic; analytical skills; computer skills; teamwork; time management and organizational skills; communication skills (oral and written); flexibility; interpersonal skills; motivation / initiative.

Now, many of you reading this are probably  focusing on the skills in this list your child or student does not have. Look at it again, and think about what attributes your child does have. For example, most people on the spectrum are honest to a fault – they are usually  the ones in the store saying “yes” when a woman trying on a dress says “Does this make me look fat?”  They are not the employee who will be caught with his hand in the cash till.  That’s a positive point to sell. A strong work ethic applies to most of our guys – the ones who do not like a change in routine and are going to be there rain or shine. They will not be calling in sick because they had one too many martinis the night before, or leave early because they have an event to attend.  Analytical skills are really ‘obsessive attention to detail,’ and many of our children have that. The child who likes to line up blocks and trains probably has good organizational skills. Teamwork and flexibility are difficult areas for many, but we should be teaching flexibility at school (there are ways of doing that), and teamwork can be handled by ensuring the person on the spectrum has one person on the team that he is in contact with for all needed  information. Many of our children with Asperger’s are good communicators, and some have become journalists, speechwriters and professors.

The point is, when people are selling a product and/ or service,  they market the positive attributes,  not the negatives. And that’s precisely what we need to be doing with any prospective employees on the spectrum.

The Child’s Interests and Strengths

It is extremely important to consider what your child or student likes or is passionate (ie obsessed) about and figure out how that can help him earn money. In most cases, people on the spectrum can be difficult to motivate – unless it involves something they are really into. For some, it is quite obvious what they are particularly interested in because they don’t let you forget. The trick is to figure out how to use that interest and turn it into a moneymaker, or to find a career field that can use that particular interest or talent. That’s where mentors come into play (more about that later).

For most on the spectrum, a job will be their one connection to the community, and their main activity. If a neurotypical hates his job, he usually has another aspect of his life that is bringing him pleasure – his family, his church, athletic activities. However, most on the spectrum do not have family or friends or many outside groups they belong to, so it is important to help them find work that will fulfill them in some way.

There are those for whom it is fairly obvious what they are passionate about. For many like my son, Jeremy, it is a much less obvious. There doesn’t seem to be anything he is particularly obsessed about  that could lead to employment.  He used to love to spin tops (physics researcher?), and to follow the patterns in carpets and floor tiles (carpet checker in a rug factory?), now he is mostly focused on communicating about girls with his support people (beauty contest judge?). However, by having different people work with him or observe him in different environments, we have been able to come up with ideas to try out, and jobs  to avoid.

When thinking about Jeremy’s future money- making potential (either in a job, customized employment, or self-employment), we thought about the different strengths and weaknesses Jeremy had.  The questions we asked ourselves  are the same that most people should consider when helping someone on the spectrum who is considering employment. For example, we asked:

  • What is Jeremy usually drawn to?
  • Is there a particular  subject area or skill area that  Jeremy excels in?
  • What, if left to his own devices, does he like to do most?
  • What motivates Jeremy to do what he does?
  • How successful is Jeremy at  self-regulating? Does he need to work in a place with low sensory stimulation?
  • What kind of situations cause Jeremy to feel anxious?
  • What do Jeremy’s organizational or multitasking skills look like?
  • Does Jeremy do better in crowded environments or when there are fewer people around?
  • Does  Jeremy like moving around, or staying in the same place?
  • How many hours a week of work can Jeremy handle? Will he be ok with a 40 hour a week job, or does he need a part time job?
  • Does Jeremy like routine and the stability of  doing the same thing every day, or does he like change?

Jeremy is interested in the concept of self-employment and did well in two self-employment experiences he tried in high school.  He had a lot more control over his environment and what his daily tasks consisted of then he would have had in a regular employment situation. However, if he were to apply for a job, there are  many questions he would need to ask an prospective employer (or someone would have to ask for him)  during the interview process to ensure a good fit between himself and the job as well as the work environment.

The Importance of Mentors

Mentors can help figure out how to turn an interest into a job, or  into a means to earn money. Temple Grandin (Thinking in Pictures; Developing Talents) speaks often about the importance of mentors in helping to turn interests into marketable skills.  That is what helped her become the success she is today.  Temple had mentors  from her science teacher at school to her aunt, from family friends to colleagues who were crucial to her success. If your child appears to have skills or  a real interest in a specific area,  someone  who works in that field   can help  the child  realize the application of his interests.  Parents may realize their child’s talent, but not know all about a certain employment area.

For example,   a child may enjoy spending hours on the computer, but  his parent who is a taxi driver or a school teacher or an attorney, may  not know anything aobut the field of computers and employment possibilities. Someone who works in computers – perhaps a tech guy the family knows-  can give insight to what is  applicable  to someone with  that child’s talents.

Mentors can also help a student feel valued as  that person will be interested in the same topic he is and will enjoy hearing what the child has to say, whereas family members  may be tired of hearing about a topic they have no interest in.

Different Employment Structures

There are different employment structures currently available and by analyzing a person’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and by asking some of the questions above,  a clearer idea of what could be a good match with the person on the spectrum is possible. There is full-time work, part-time employment, seasonal work, year round employment and so on.

Other less traditional structures  are becoming more popular, and this is probably in response to the realization that most adults with disabilities are unemployed. In 2002,  unemployment figures for disabled adults hovered at 70% and had done so for the previous 12 years (2002 Report by the President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education).   This report showed us that besides needing to do a better job of preparing our students for employment, meant we also had to start looking at other employment structures more conducive to individual employee needs.

One  less traditional structure  is customized employment, which  means that the work is tailored to the individual, not the other way around. It can mean job carving, where one job is carved up into different tasks  and shared by several people, giving each employee the part of the job they enjoy or excel at the most. Another type of customized employment is self-employment, which is sometimes referred to as micro-enterprise and  which basically means having your own business or being self-employed.  This can be a good  option for those who are having a difficult time fitting into  regular paid positions, or when there is no position available. This option is gaining popularity in the US as well as in the UK.  For some examples of self-employment initiatives by people with developmental disabilities,  visit

Self Employment as an Option

Although I would encourage Jeremy to try  an employment opportunity that seems like a good fit, I am not holding my breath waiting for that job to show up on the horizon. I am not convinced that that much has changed since 2002 in the job market in regards to hiring disabled people, and certainly with all the neurotypicals now jobless, I don’t anticipate a huge rush of employers looking to hire my son.

I became interested in the concept of self-employment or micro-enterprise  when Jeremy was not offered any  work experiences during his first few years of high school, about 5 years ago. The workability person at the time felt that Jeremy was not ready for any of  the job options she had in the community.  His teacher, however, felt everyone, including Jeremy, had potential, and was open to creating a self-employment experience under workability. At that time, Jeremy could not communicate as readily as he can now, and so we had to  come up with ideas based on observations that people who knew  Jeremy made about his strengths and weaknesses, his likes and dislikes, and then ask him yes or no questions.

I had heard of people with developmental disabilities having their own business.  When the opportunity came, I  attended a workshop on the process and how it could work, and it made sense to me for someone like Jeremy.  It was clear that if workability was telling me there was not   a work experience opportunity for  Jeremy, I was going to have to create something for him  to learn “on the job” skills.

Jeremy’s teacher came up with the idea of starting a sandwich delivery service for the teachers, based on Jeremy’s strengths and likes, and the fact that by the end of the week, the teachers were sick of the on-site lunch option, and so there was a need for such a service.  Jeremy’s second experience was providing  a needed product (selling flowers to peers at school where no flowers were available on campus). By actually doing these businesses, Jeremy learned valuable business lessons.  These lessons were complimented by general education classes he took those semesters, such as a class on marketing and another one on economics. For his class projects he had to write papers on how he applied those principles to his job. Some of these lessons were:  the cost of doing business; the difference between a profit and a loss;  how marketing, location and  price affected the numbers of customers he was able to attract and keep. Jeremy also learned that if  he could not do all aspects of his job,  he had to pay someone else to do the parts he could not. In reality, it is these kinds of business lessons all neurotypical teens should be learning in the current economy.

That being said, self-employment is not for everyone and necessitates a business support team. The business support team can be made up of a teacher or parent, a paraprofessional, a mentor , a friend, someone who has business experience. Each person brings their knowledge to the team.   The business team helps to advise in areas the person needs help with, and also does parts of the business the person cannot, just as in all businesses (ie I pay a tech guy to take care of my website because I can’t). There are free resources, available on-line for those who are not experienced in starting up a business.

Looking at   self employment as an option sometimes leads to an actual job. The process of discovering a person’s strengths and weaknesses, can lead to discovering  areas of traditional employment that  had not been   considered for that person previously. Sometimes it leads to a job offer  from a business in the local community that  the person had visited  to  get more  information about his area of interest.


Teaching children and teens on the spectrum needed life skills is a necessary  preparation to  life as a money-earning adult. Analyzing the needs of both the potential employee and employer, as well as looking at the different options in employment structures is necessary to ensuring a good match. Finding a mentor can help with a successful  transition to gainful employment.

This year, Jeremy is benefiting from two workability experiences while he is studying to earn his high school diploma. Twice a week he works at the local library (which he has visited on a regular basis for the last 10 years). Once a week he helps develop the business and marketing plans for the micro-enterprise experience that some of the other students are working on through workability. Jeremy  has come a long way thanks to all the different team members along the way who believed in his potential. It takes a village….

This article first appeared in The Autism File February 2009 issue.

As Independent As Possible

This is an article written by Liz Breen  following the publication of my book Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum, and was published in Spectrum magazine.

Author explains making the transition  from school years to adulthood

BOOKS   by Liz BcBreen

The unemployment rate among the special needs population

has been at 70 percent for the past 12 years. This

is according to a study that was conducted by the

President’s Commission on Excellence in Special

Education in 2002. The commission gathered this data as

it was researching what works and what does not work

when it comes to transition programs.

Chantal Sicile-Kira is being proactive about bringing

this unemployment rate down among young adults with

special needs. Her company, Autism: Making a

Difference, is dedicated to preparing teens with developmental

disabilities for their futures. Every day, Sicile-

Kira is developing innovative ways to equip young adults

with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the

working world.

The special needs arena is familiar one for Sicile-

Kira. For almost 20 years she has been involved in the

community both as a professional and parent. While an

undergraduate, she took a job at Fairview State Hospital

working with autistic people. There she not only found

her professional calling, but she began gathering information

she would one day use in her personal life. Twelve

years after she took the job in California, her son Jeremy

was born. Eventually, Jeremy was diagnosed with autism.

Sicile-Kira had already become a strong advocate and

educator in the autism community, and she began to put

her own advice into action. Now she’s offering her years

of experience to others who do not have a handle on what

comes after early intervention.

The transition from high school to college or full-time

job placement is one of the most important in anyone’s

life. It is especially challenging for those with special

needs. Why then, do they receive so little transitional

planning? Sicile-Kira is trying to raise awareness about

this issue through the work of her company as well as

through her new book, Adolescents on the Spectrum: A

Parents Guide to the Cognitive, Social, Physical and

Transition Needs of Teenagers with Autism Spectrum

Disorders. According to Sicile-Kira, “we have to make

sure people have the right training and information out

there. People have to start thinking outside the box. We

have to start thinking about unemployment not from a

social worker mentality but from a business point of

view.” Sicile-Kira is concerned about what the lack of

training and options will mean for the “baby boom of

autism.” Currently, the largest group of children with

autism is ages 7 through 9 – about 10 years away from

attending college or entering the workforce.

Most of work that Autism: Making a Difference carries

out is based on finding a young person’s interests. For

many children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism,

there are work opportunities out there. The key is to find

what will interest the individual and then encourage the

interest in a constructive manner. Sicile-Kira cites Steven

Shore as an example of this work. Shore is a leader in the

autism community and an author. He also promotes selfadvocacy.

As a child, he was diagnosed with autism so

severe that doctors thought he should be institutionalized.

At a young age Shore began taking things apart and putting

them back together. This is how he passed many

hours. Eventually, he became so familiar with the

mechanics of certain objects that he got a job in a bicycle

shop during high school. “Somewhere along the way, he

learned to transfer these skills,” says Sicile-Kira. “I don’t

know if he had a mentor or did it by himself, but he was

able to use an interest and talent to get a job.” Sicile-Kira

has developed an effective strategy for achieving this

goal, even when it is difficult to find where a child’s

interest lies.

Jeremy, Sicile-Kira’s son has severe autism. She could

not pinpoint a certain interest Jeremy had, so she found a

need in the community. During the past school year,

Jeremy sold flowers to his peers and teachers at his high

school. In the process, he learned about profit and loss,

marketing and how to be an employer.

Every week, Jeremy collected his orders, which were

placed on Monday. Near the end of the week, he bought

flowers and prepared them for presentation. On Friday,

he delivered the orders. Because Jeremy has sensory

issues, it was sometimes difficult to work in the noisy

high school environment. When he couldn’t make his

deliveries, his aid assisted him. In essence, his aid

became his employee. The aid received payment, and

Jeremy learned that if he used the help of an employee,

he earned less money.

Sicile-Kira first came up with this idea for mentoring

towards talents when she came in contact with the creators

of IncomeLinks. Doreen Rosimos and Darcy Wilson

have developed a program to help individuals with developmental


and other challenges begin their own microenterprise.

When Sicile-Kira thought about this idea in

relation to Temple Grandin’s book, Developing Talents,

the entire concept began to take shape. When encouraged

by a mentor, someone with a developmental disability can

“find their niche” and at the same time, improve their

executive functions and build self-esteem. In fact, one of

the major impacts of her work so far is the increased selfesteem

Sicile-Kira is seeing in the people she mentors.

Her goal was to get young people into a suitable work

environment, and the increased confidence has become a

welcome by-product of her work.

Just as her company is broaching new territory, so is

Sicile-Kira’s new book. “There was a gap in information

in terms of hygiene, puberty, preparing for life. This fills

that gap” Sicile-Kira explains, “After early intervention,

the high school years are the most important and very few

people talk about it.” The author’s first book, Autism

Spectrum Disorders: The Complete Guide to Understanding

Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental

Disorders and other ASDs, included some information on

adolescence, “but then I realized there was so little out

there. Some kids are being cured and recovered, but the

vast majority are not.” Sicile-Kira wanted to give parents

and educators the tools they need to help children move

into the next phase of their lives after high school.

It was when Jeremy was in middle school and high

school, that Sicile-Kira found herself with little support

and few resources to assist his development. As Jeremy

moved up through grades at his school, she did not feel

he was getting the kind of guidance he needed. One of

the crucial factors in creating a future for a young adult

with developmental disabilities is to develop an

Individualized Transition Plan (ITP). These plans are discussed

in detail in Sicile-Kira’s book.

The ITP should become part of a child’s Individual

Education Plan (IEP) by the age of 16, Sicile-Kira

explains. “The ITP is the ‘business plan’ for the teenager’s

life. The mission statement should reflect the student’s

dreams and aspirations. The goals should tell you

how to get there and what is needed to make the dream a

reality.” The ITP should include plans for what students

are learning in the last years of high school and what

agencies will help him achieve his or her goals after high

school. “It’s important for parents to recognize that this is

a very important tool,” says Sicile-Kira. “I realized that a

lot of parents just didn’t know about it. When children

graduate, they might have a diploma, but many do not

have the life skills they need.”

Another facet of the ITP is living arrangements.

Parents need to consider the future and children need to

learn the life skills they will need to function in whatever

kind of living arrangement they choose for themselves,

according to Sicile-Kira. Ideally, every child should be

given the tools needed to become as independent as possible.

All of this information can be captured in an ITP, and

the goals of the IEP should be written towards the ITP.

It is also important to allow a child to have as much

input as possible when it comes to the ITP. If he or she

has any interests or hobbies that may lead to a job after

school, or has an idea as to what kind of job they want, it

should be noted in the plan. If a child does not know,

assessments should be done in order to pinpoint his or

her interests.

In addition to many parents not knowing about the

ITP, Sicile-Kira feels the ones who do often do not know

what question to ask. “Everyone talks about early intervention,

but people are not focused on the future. When

they are young, parents of course should be focused on

getting them better, but at some point, you might realize

that your child is not going to recover completely.” Sicile-

Kira adds that this is not to say that children ever stop

learning or that parents should give up. But, if recovery

never occurs, parents need to find a way to help their

children lead a fulfilling life.

Sicile-Kira says that feedback on the book has been

positive. Parents say they glad to finally have a resource

that deals with their main concerns. For many, these

include creating a meaningful ITP and planning for the

future. Another major concern for parents is how to

address hygiene, puberty and sexuality. In her book,

Sicile-Kira addresses these topics in a straightforward

and open manner. “All children nearing adolescence

need to have an understanding of what is going on in

their bodies and how to take care of themselves. Children

with ASDs need even more information and input from

parents at this time, and need to be taught specifically

about puberty and all it entails.” The author goes on to

explain how to teach your child about his or her body

while considering their chronological age and maturity

level. She offers areas of discussion that can be simplified

or built upon, depending on what your child already

knows and how he or she communicates.

An essential aspect of raising a child with developmental

disabilities is to teach them to be as independent

as possible, according to Sicile-Kira. An important part of

this task lies in teaching your child about good hygiene.

“Cleanliness is a contributing factor to self-esteem,” says

Sicile-Kira. “Most tweens and teens on the autism spectrum

do not independently learn what they need to know about hygiene

and self-care. Although it is best to start

teaching about hygiene, health, and self-care before

puberty, it is never too late. The goal is to teach teens to

be as independent as possible in these areas.” Sicile-Kira

suggests several ways to teach your child hygiene skills.

One is to make a schedule of when and where self-care

should take place. The author also discusses how to teach

these skills when your child has difficulty with sensory

issues. Another topic on which the author advises parents

is the necessity of teaching your child about relationship

boundaries. Often, children on the spectrum have

been taught to follow instructions – especially those

given by someone with authority. Children need to be

taught not to follow directions when they are dangerous

or inappropriate.

Whether they have a child with a developmental disability

or not, a discussion on sexuality is one that some

parents would rather leave to educators. Sicile-Kira urges

parents to take responsibility for this aspect of their

child’s upbringing. “It’s a sensitive subject because of all

the different religious, philosophical and ethical beliefs

that affect what our thoughts are on sex education and

what is taught in school and how it is taught. As parents,

you are responsible for your child’s ethical and religious

upbringing. Before teaching or explaining to your tween

or teen about sexuality, parents will need to reexamine

their own ideas and attitudes about sex, sexuality, and

what they believe teenagers should know.” Sicile-Kira

offers tips and additional resources that will help parents

have open and honest conversations with their children

about sexuality.

One of the ways Sicile-Kira is making her message

and strategies known to parents and educators is through

her Internet radio show, “The Real World of Autism with

Chantal.” The show discusses practical issues that face

parents and caregivers of autistic children every day.

Sicile-Kira interviews experts and community members,

takes audience questions and offers resources. The show

airs twice a month in English and once in French on

Autism One Radio. For more information, visit The author and advocate also

wants to start a non-profit organization that focuses wholly

on developing transitional plans for children with

developmental disabilities.

When she considers the success that she has

achieved with her son Jeremy, Sicile-Kira cites several

factors. Most importantly, she refused to believe that he

could not learn and never gave up on him. She learned

everything she could about autism, therapies and treatments.

She surrounded herself with people who

believed in Jeremy and who were interested in helping

him learn, and she never lost sight of the fact that it is

never too late to learn life skills and independence.

These tenets allow Sicile-Kira to carry out her mission

of helping her son and those she mentors to live a life

as independentl