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Social Thinking Articles

Adults with Social Learning Challenges at Work

Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner

The following are some questions from different employers I have received about adults in the work world with social learning challenges. Social learning is typically a process that evolves naturally, starting from birth and continuing across the life span. It includes our innate ability to think through and apply information to succeed in situations that require social knowledge. Limited abilities for learning and/or applying socially relevant information can be considered a social learning challenge. While these issues are commonly experienced by individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (high-functioning), Social Communication Disorder (SCD), Asperger Syndrome (AS), ADHD, Nonverbal Learning Disability (NVLD) and similar diagnoses, children and adults experiencing social learning difficulties often have received no diagnosis. While we know that there are adults with social learning issues function well in his/her workplaces without the following problems (many in fact!), I thought I would share my thoughts on the following questions:


Is there an average work week that most adults with social learning challenges are best suited to work?

People with social learning issues are a really mixed group. They have different personalities, skills, abilities, just like all of us..  So, your experience with this one gentleman will likely not be the same set of challenges you will experience with another person. Some can only handle a 20-hour or so week and others are fully productive with 40. Read our article on the Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile to learn more about different Levels of the Social Mind.


Job coaching seems to be a common practice for many adults. Have you heard of this? The person I am working with sleeps on the job and surfs the net, but we are told this is because he has a social learning challenge?

Yes I have heard of job coaching, but it is a good idea but only if the job coach has specific concrete strategies to use. I would recommend you explore www.timetimer.com to help him recognize the amount of time he needs to stay focused before he can take a break. Sleeping on a job is never acceptable; it doesn't matter if he has social learning challenges - he has to be accountable to other (unless he is really aloof and can’t understand?) There are many adults with social learning issues who have no sense of urgency or time, but they are not high functioning individuals. Sometimes when students get a diagnosis related to social skill problems, we let them be far less accountable to others because they their diagnosis… but by the time they enter the adult work world they are held to the same accountability standard as everyone else!


Help your employee to break down his time and task requirements.


Teaching the hidden rules is excellent (see the book The Hidden Curriculum by Myles et al. The fact that he surfs the net or sleeps during his time at work should have consequences. If the bar is lowered for him because of his challenges, he may just keep adjusting to try and lower the bar more…people with social learning issues are only human and at times just as manipulative (knowingly or unknowingly) as the rest of us!


How much is job coaching used by a person with social learning challenges - short term or across their entire careers?

Usually a job coach is used more intensively at the start as they teach the person about the complexities of their work environment, how to problem solve, social expectations, hidden rules, etc. then their hours are faded as the employee becomes self-sustaining and they start to develop a relationship with a person who works in their company with whom they can problem solve.


On the subject of job coaching, I've discovered that the Canadian government will pay for some job coaching are you aware of this in the US?

To my knowledge, this is only the case if the person has received money from the Department of Rehabilitation and waiver or regional center monies, or is part of a job placement center that is set up specifically to help persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, few people who call themselves job coaches are really trained in providing that service. Many people are hired to be job coaches with relatively little if any training and may be completely unfamiliar with the issues of adults with social learning challenges, as they may have worked more with persons with cognitive challenges rather than more purely social learning issues.


Is it advisable to communicate with a department that someone struggling with social learning will be joining the team? I am big on communication and yet when is it too much?

You would need permission from the adult to have this type of conversation. If you have his or her permission, you could explain to more about what a person’s strengths and weaknesses are and as part of his or her weaknesses he/she has social learning challenges… and then explain the diagnostic label only if you have permission! You can only share a diagnostic label if the client gives you permission to share that confidential information. The most important thing the new team will need are strategies to help this person maximize his or her effectiveness as an employee, a label itself offers no concrete strategies to help!


As for some of the following concerns, here are some very brief ideas:

  • Keeping him on task
  • Put him on a productivity monitor
  • He falls asleep at the desk
  • She or he uses the internet too often
  • Time management issues..a 15 minute break may turn into a much longer break

Provide clear expectations for how he should spend his time, how he can ask for help if not sure what to do. Have your task broken down and then clear consequences (should be visual/written if possible). Explain the consequences of a negative “write up” in his employee file

Adults with social learning challenges can be very capable workers in the work force who are highly productive, but struggle to relate socially. However, there are also many adults who have a poor sense of work productivity and efficiency and don't have a clear understanding of how others perceive them. The truth is that we have a competitive work force and our clients need to learn to be active, productive members of a team who also learn the social rules or relatedness in their work environments. We have our hands full with these requirements given the fact that we have very little information available at this point for persons with social learning challenges in the competitive work world.

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