OUCARES gives Pre-Employment Skills Training to adults with ASD

The second floor of the Meadows Learning Center on Auburn Road is home to OUCARES’ training program. 

Making a good first impression in a job interview can be stressful for anyone. However, many people never consider how having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can amplify the hurdles faced in the job search, application and interview process.

In order to help people with ASD learn to navigate a job hunt, the Oakland University Center for Autism (OUCARES) is offering a new 12-week Pre-Employment Skills Training course this summer.

The program focuses on understanding employment and soft interpersonal skills like communication, social awareness, networking and teamwork.

“One of the big earmarks of anyone who falls on the autism spectrum is what I hate to call ‘a deficiency in social skills.’ And job interviews are nothing but social skills on parade,” said Kyle Goldman, lead facilitator of the Pre-Employment Skills Training.

“These are students who struggle with things like eye contact, appropriate greetings, handshakes, things like that. So it’s really a challenge, especially when you’ve got a student who struggles to look you in the eye, doesn’t want to touch you and doesn’t necessarily answer beyond ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’

“We try to take that and, at its very base, explain why those pieces are important. For a lot of those students, we’ve seen that it’s the first time that anyone has explained, ‘This is why it’s important to make a good handshake.’”

The next session of the program runs from July 18 to Oct. 7 at the Meadows Learning Center in Rochester.

There are six students enrolled in the current session, who attend Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In order to qualify, students must be age 18-26 and have ASD or other learning difficulties. Enrollment costs $3,000, but need- and merit-based scholarship support is available.

Each day of training follows a similar agenda. From 10 a.m. to 12 p.m., the students do basic physical warm ups, discuss current events in “water cooler” fashion and work on soft skills in a large group format through activities like handling money, mock phone interviews and teamwork exercises.

During lunch, the facilitators socially engage the students with games or group cooking exercises. Finally, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., the focus is on interpersonal skills, computer skills, practicing job hunting and creating résumés.

Students leave the program with a résumé, cover letter template and the skills to update these as they go along. They also learn how to find and identify jobs that they are interested in and how to navigate a job interview.

“What they walk away with in the end is they’re ready for employment. They’re ready to start making those connections and participating in those interviews,” Goldman said.

Goldman’s goal is to build students’ skills and confidence, while making the process as fun and interactive as possible.

“We have a very funny teacher,” said participant Andy Patronik.

Goldman likened entering a job interview with ASD to visiting a foreign country without knowing its language.

She and the other facilitators use different types of mock interviews to familiarize the students with the “language” of a job interview. Participant Adam Stajniak said practicing phone interviews is his favorite part of the program.

Earlier in June, Fifth Third Bank sent employees out to Meadows Learning Center to mock interview the students, who got dressed up and treated the interviews like the real deal.

“Quite honestly, before I was scared as hell going into a job interview, but now I feel way more confident and they’re not going to be, for the most part, intimidating,” said Aaron Nerswick, a 23-year-old student enrolled in the course.

Nerswick hopes to pursue a career in film. Another student in the class, 23-year-old Evan Hodge, is interested in looking for opportunities at Barnes and Noble or with Leader Dogs for the Blind.

“Every person who has autism is a little different,” Hodge said. “I know that my autism is not the same as others’. People say, ‘I thought that people with autism didn’t look people in the eye, or didn’t understand sarcasm.’ But I suppose that each one of us is different.”

In addition to the Pre-Employment Skills Training program, OUCARES is running Pee Wee Camps and Summer Day Camps for children with ASD, as well as Teen Life Skills Camps and Adult Life Skills Camps this summer.

Registration is also open for OUCARES’ Video Editing and Photoshop Design courses, bowling leagues and parent support group. Registration forms for all programs and camps are available at oakland.edu/oucares/programs/.

Nerswick has attended a number of OUCARES programs, and considers them to be a major part of his life.

“Ever since I’ve been doing it for the past one to two years, it’s just changed my outlook on life and I’m glad I’ve done it for so long,” he said. “Honestly, if I didn’t come here, I don’t know where I would be. This program has made a really good change in me.”

Kristen Wagel, a communications intern with OUCARES, hopes the word can be spread about the group and its volunteer opportunities.

“As an OU student, I did not know that OUCARES even existed,” Wagel said. “I think that it’s important that we get the word out because the services they offer and the people within the OUCARES community do awesome things and they’re so passionate and dedicated.”

To learn more about OUCARES and how to get involved, visit oakland.edu/oucares.