Q&A with Alan Cohen, employment supports professional

The Autism Society of North Carolina recently named Alan Cohen of Raleigh as the 2013 winner of the John and Claudia Roman Direct Service Award. Cohen, an employment supports professional who has worked for ASNC for four years, shares some of what he has learned.

Alan CohenWhat is a typical workday like for you?

That’s something that you learn very fast working in the field of vocational services, that there really isn’t a typical day. As varied and unique as the individuals are that we support, so is my workday. With that said, I usually begin each day with planning and reviewing my schedule and confirming my appointments. I work very closely with an ASNC employment supports coordinator, so we communicate most mornings to discuss the many issues involving our caseload. My caseload is made up of three areas of supported employment: job development, intensive training, and long-term vocational support, so my time is divided supporting individuals based on where they are on the vocational spectrum. I quickly learned that this position definitely is not a 9-to-5 job. There are many days where you are with someone either in person or on the phone at night or on the weekends.

What are the skills someone needs to work with adults with autism?

I feel that for the most part, the professionals who are drawn to this field innately have the aptitude to work with individuals with autism. However, continued education and training in the field, coupled with a high level of compassion and a genuine desire to help people are probably necessary ingredients to be successful.

How do you build relationships with the people you are helping?

I don’t have a defined protocol or strategy pertaining to building relationships with the individuals we support. Each individual is different in personality as well as their vocational goals. As part of our initial intake session, I make it a point to find out as much as I can about them personally, including their vocational goals, their educational background, their work history, their personal goals, their hobbies, jobs they like and jobs they don’t like, and any other information that might help us with the job search. With individuals involved in the job/career search process, or job development, I try to meet with them each week. This allows the individual, myself, and their families to really get to know each other and to work together to accomplish the goals that we have established. I feel it’s important to include the individual and their families as much as possible in active participation. This approach creates positive rapport, provides camaraderie, and helps to instill a sense of pride, responsibility, and confidence in the individual when we finally secure that perfect employment opportunity. I have a long history of coaching sports, and the interpersonal dynamics required to establish a strong player-coach relationship are basically the same in building positive working relationships with the people we support. 

Parents have said that you understand the way their adult children with autism think. Did you have to work to gain that skill or do you think it is instinctual?

Part of that obviously comes from my experience working with this population. However, because of my own personal experiences, I am very aware of some of the challenges that they have dealt with in their lives. I also feel that taking the time to really get to know each individual as well as demonstrating a genuine interest in their success helps to strengthen the working relationship.  

Can you identify a few areas in which individuals with autism need the most support?

As we all are aware – at least those of us who work at ASNC – each individual is different in the level of support that they require, although I do find that assistance with inter-job communication remains a consistent need across the spectrum.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s my goal to delegate a certain amount of responsibility to each individual in their job search to create a sense of active collaboration. The amount of responsibility that they can take on will vary from person to person. Some individuals certainly require more support than others, but it’s our job to challenge that threshold and to instill as much confidence, self-reliance, and independence in their lives as possible.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Notes!!!! The rest I see as just part of my job. There are challenging days, but it helps to really enjoy working with everyone that I have the opportunity to work with. 

What is the best part of your job? Or a moment you hold up as inspiration?

Aside from having the opportunity to work alongside some very talented colleagues, I’m inspired every day by the individuals and the families that we support. Knowing that with every job placement or career advancement, I am helping to propel them toward a new exciting phase in their life. Seeing this process unfold provides me with great inspiration and satisfaction as I see them transform themselves into responsible, working adults and young professionals.

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