For most Americans going to work is a grudge task. We get up, get in to the shower, grab some coffee and head to work. We sit at our desks and watch the clock for 8 hours until time to go home and we grumble about our job the whole day. We take for granted our ability to shuffle papers, answer emails, go to meeting, fill out forms, and do the most menial tasks but for those with Autism doing those tasks would seem monumental in some cases. Now, public health officials are turning to the iPod to help people with Autism manage their time, provide reminders and prompts and even learn repetitious tasks in the workplace so that they can lead a more productive and fulfilling life.

The Atlantic: The tasks required of Jeffrey by his minimum wage job at a fast food restaurant were not beyond his physical or mental capacities to complete — he was responsible each day for emptying garbage cans, wiping down tables, sweeping, stocking condiments, and cleaning the bathrooms. But a case study published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation describes how, as a 21-year-old with autism, he required the near-constant supervision of a job coach to prompt him to rotate between his different duties and to help him remember the steps involved in each task.

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As Steve Jobs himself said, by pushing past the initial complexities of a problem “you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions.” In Jeffrey’s case, the solution was Apple’s iPod Touch, programmed by an occupational therapist to guide him through the day. The iPod contained specific instructions that Jeffrey could reference when he forgot what to do, and would alert him when it was time to switch to a different task. Within a week, the two were synched.

The job coach stepped back, and a year later Jeffrey continues to excel at his job. Having the iPod as an interactive reference allows him to function more or less independently, and to feel more at ease in the workplace. His manager noted that he no longer spins in circles while humming or stamps his feet in the corner — disruptive behaviors that he used to turn to in order to relieve his anxiety and that had been causing management to second-guess their decision to hire him.

The iPod even reminds Jeffrey that it needs to be charged each night.

Once a job coach has programmed in the basics and helped them learn how to use it, the people presented in the case studies were able to function more independently. People with autism tend to respond well to computers, in part because of their predictability. “Symbiosis between man and machine in that population is an amazing opportunity for more focused and individual support,” said Gentry. Such was the case with Lily, another young adult profiled by Gentry:

…[Lily] required direct verbal support to stay on task, to switch tasks, and to know which alternating schedule to follow each day. Because Lily takes pride in her work skills, she often became frustrated when her supervisor or job coach provided these task cues, resorting to behaviors that included throwing soft drinks, stomping, crying and phoning her mother at home. Unforeseen changes in the workday schedule also caused outbursts. These challenges made independent job performance problematic.

Having her task cues delivered by an iPod instead of a supervisor allowed Lily to both feel and be more independent. This was emphasized by a two-week period after she lost her iPod, during which she reverted to old behaviors and required an average of six hours a week of direct prompting from her job coach. Once she got a new device, the job coached logged only two hours per week, most of which only involved indirect monitoring.

 

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