Business Solutions: Working Parents, Summer, and Special Needs Kids

Spring has arrived and the end of the school year is within sight.  Most kids are counting down the days while most working parents are breaking a sweat trying to cobble together two-plus months of camps, vacations, occasional day-trips, and childcare, hoping their plans on paper work in practice.  Add a child, teen, or young adult with special needs and the challenges intensify considerably.

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

If you’re an employer or a manager, here are three ways you can offer support:

FLEXIBILITY RULES

1. Children have needs over the summer, and without school providing a predictable daily schedule, parents struggle.  Add a child with autism or other special needs, and the challenges intensify.  Some children qualify for Extended School Year services, yet they're typically less than a full-day and almost never run from the last day of school in June to the first day of school in late August/early September. 

SOLUTION:  Provide flexible work hours if not already offered, offer parents remote work opportunities, and allow for vacation and personal time to be used in hours or partial days vs. full days.  And be flexible with last-minute and crisis needs that arise.  If your parental leave policies need evaluation, now is the time to do it.  Companies that are aware and responsive to these needs are those that retain working parents.

PRIVACY HELPS

2. Children with special needs who are attending camp and other summer programs often have needs that require parent assistance.  And it's not the "I forgot my swimsuit" type of need either.  Therapies, tutoring, and other supports continue throughout the summer, putting extra pressure on already stressed parents with exceptional caregiving responsibilities when it comes to juggling work, appointments, transportation and more.

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SOLUTION:  Allow parents access to a specially-designated office or private space for them to make telephone calls, schedule a video conference with camp personnel or support staff, schedule appointments, and confer with doctors, clinicians, and others as needed.  It can reduce time away from the office and provides employees with the privacy they need.  Plus, it demonstrates that the company understands the stressors involved with exceptional caregiving responsibilities, not only on a daily basis but also during the challenging summer months as well.

SUPPORTS MATTER

3. Children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, or similar needs require structure and predictability, and the summer months are often when this is difficult to achieve and maintain.  Parents prepare as best as possible, yet situations develop that require them to adapt and adjust quickly.  A particular camp may not work.  A childcare provider may leave.  A therapist may request additional evaluations.  These situations mean that employees need time and resources to help. 

SOLUTION:  Communicate to all employees that their EAP is available to assist with issues that relate to summer needs, whether locating a last-minute child care provider or addressing stress-related issues.  Providing employees with access to resources to help them manage their children’s needs as well as their own work/life issues is key to employee retention.  And if employee assistance or work/life programs or services are not yet available, now is the time to start.

One of the things we consistently hear from working parents is that they need more support and assistance, whether managing their children's needs or understanding how to navigate through school.  And these needs are year-round, often intensifying over the summer months as planning for September begins well before this school year ends. 

Employers play a pivotal role, not only in creating family-friendly workplaces, but in recognizing that many working parents have needs that are not so apparent...or even discussed, and that go way beyond infancy.  Offering flexibility and supports to parents throughout the year, especially over the summer months, can make all the difference in helping top performing employees remain on the job.

The Real Truth About Parental Leave

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

I can't say enough about all the recent attention regarding parental leave and the companies expanding opportunities for new mothers and fathers to spend critical time with their newborns. 

Recognizing the importance of new parents being able to bond with their children speaks volumes...about the fact that families matter in our society and that companies are focusing on establishing family-friendly cultures.  All good stuff (and smart business) and steps that are long overdue, a comment I can comfortably make having been in the work/life arena since the late 90s and can see where progress has been made.

And while more companies are now providing paid parental leave, a critically important workplace benefit, the truth is that there are millions of working parents whose parental leave needs are not being met.  Or even addressed.  Those with elementary-aged, teens, or college-aged children.  And while this isn't meant to be a comparison, anyone who thinks managing a child during infancy is the same as raising a child or teen struggling in school or life isn't looking at parenting and the needs of working parents realistically.  Each age and stage has its challenges and for many parents, sleepless nights and gray hair come with it.  But opening the lens -- and discussion -- to the truth means recognizing that the needs of working parents don't stop at several months.  Or at age 5.

There is nothing more important than establishing a solid foundation for a parent and child during the early years.  I could barely stand to leave my child as a newborn or toddler myself, and I was self-employed at the time so didn't have the restrictions and limitations that many parents face.  No question...these were glorious years, yet we cannot be short-sighted nor can we forget that babies and toddlers grows into children and young adults whose needs become as complex as they are.

As every parent will tell you, parenting is lifelong and the challenges intensify as our children get older.  The issues facing kids today are nothing like they were when we were growing up, and this requires parents to be more...involved, engaged, vigilant, accessible...present.  All we need to do is look at the numbers of 8, 15 and 22-year-olds struggling with autism, depression, ADHD, cyberbullying, anxiety and more, and the facts are clear.

I applaud every company moving toward or already providing paid parental leave.  And those offering on-site childcare, maternity massages, lactation rooms, and more are surely adding to supports being provided.  Yet companies need to recognize that parenting and the needs of working parents are for many years vs. months or a few short years.  Unless and until this lens opens all the way, we're only seeing a small part of a much larger picture and are sorely missing the mark.  The truth is that parental leave for new parents is important.  For veteran parents, it's essential.

Working Caregiving Parents Need Time

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

Working parents are handling two jobs - their work and their children, a full plate for almost every parent.  Add an 8-year-old with autism, an 11-year-old with a learning disability, or a 17-year-old with depression and the work/life needs are often insurmountable. 

There's all the "typical" parenting responsibilities, which are often anything but typical, plus another layer of needs ranging from facilitating their child’s services and supports to managing ongoing school issues; it's a life of complexities that few understand and are often managed without help.

The Gift of Time

Respite care, or having an hour to themselves, is one of the most important ways parent caregivers can continue doing what they do.  That saying about putting on your own oxygen mask before you can help another definitely holds true here.  Yet there's often no one to help these working parents even reach for their mask no less give them a few minutes to breathe. 

The Caregiver Action Network has information that provides resources to help working caregivers which applies to exceptional caregiving for children as well as aging parents.  And many are handling both - caring for a child with special needs and for an aging parent as well. 

If someone in your life is dealing with these issues, the best way you can show them you're aware and care is with the gift of time.  It can be an hour to shower or time to take a walk.  Or simply to have some quiet time to try to regroup and refresh.  Don't wait for them to ask or for a crisis to arise.  Having a little "me" time can make all the difference.

Parental Leave ... Time For Parents To Be Parents

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

Could it be that we’re finally at a tipping point when it comes to parental leave?  I’m almost afraid to ask the question, but it’s long overdue. 

Supporting the needs of employees who are also parents is simply smart business.  Not only does it reduce costs (e.g. recruiting/replacement, absenteeism), but companies seem to forget a critical point when evaluating their support for (or objection to) paid leave and similar programs -- working parents are raising the next generation of employees, so doesn’t it make sense to give these children the benefit of parents who can be fully-present? 

I’ve been saying this for years…no working parent should have to choose between being a good employee and a good parent.  And many have had to make this choice for far too long.

Working parents with Special education Special needs children including Autism ADHD Learning disabilities  Employee benefits Employee assistance Employee support Voluntary benefits. 504 Plan, IEP Program

Considering the fact that we rank along with Oman and Papua New Guinea as one of only three countries that does not provide paid parental leave, to say that the respect and support for working parents has been lacking would be a serious understatement.  Employees who are essentially juggling two full-time jobs, who excel at multi-tasking and problem-solving (two key competencies companies seek), and who are raising their children while helping to keep their companies profitable.  If I wasn't one myself, I'd be shaking my own head in amazement. 

There's no better way for companies to truly "walk the talk" than by recognizing the needs and providing supports for working parents over the lifecycle of their children's lives.  Some of these needs (e.g. raising a child with autism) are more complex, yet company support remains integral to retaining these top employees.  And this begins by providing parents the quality time they need with their children from the start.

Enter Intel’s new benefit - “bonding leave” - which provides employees (Moms and Dads alike) with eight weeks of paid leave to be with their families.  Add this to the 13 paid weeks that new mothers can take anytime within 12 months of their child’s birth, adoption, or foster care placement.  The result?  A company that gets it.

Whether it’s called parental leave, bonding leave, or anything else, if it allows working parents the time they and their children need to become what we want every family to be - a strong unit - without the paycheck worry, let’s call it anything we want as long as the end results are the same.

-Debra I. Schafer, CEO  

When One Small Step Is Anything But Small

People tend to believe that it's the big things in life that have the most significance, but I don't necessarily agree.  Small things often make the greatest impact, and one group of people know exactly what I mean. If you're the parent of a typical child, there are so many "firsts" and accomplishments that the small steps often get lost in the shuffle.  Not so for parents of children with an autism spectrum disorder.  For these parents, life is all about watching for the smallest possible step.  About knowing the minutes, days, and months of effort that went into making this step happen.  It's often only those closest to the child who can understand and appreciate what this is all about.

Ever sit and watch a flower bloom?  You rarely see anything, but look away for a day and the changes are often amazing.  Parents of children with autism spend much of their lives closely watching for that bloom to happen ... for that "one thing", that small step that will show them that their child is learning to speak, respond, play, understand.  And they see it when it happens.

This past week, I spoke with a parent who was sharing how her child was finally able to tolerate something that had been - up to that point - intolerable.  For most parents, this would have been seen as a "get over it" moment, but not for this parent.  It was a huge obstacle that impacted her child's ability to function and the family's ability to function as well.  Anyone who would say that a small step isn't a major milestone is someone whose life hasn't been touched by autism.

Think about it this way...most people stand back and look at life like admiring a huge mural painted on the side of a building.  But for parents of children with autism, they're standing right up close, seeing every single stroke of the brush.  When your child struggles on a daily basis in a world that assaults their senses and challenges their abilities, every step forward is anything but small.  These parents know what they're looking for and even if they don't, they still see when something changes or some progress is made.  That's because they're always looking and hoping for it.

That infamous line..."One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" are words that ring true for each and every parent of a child with autism.  Every small step their child makes is a leap indeed, for it paves the way for a future of possibilities.  And possibility is that wonderful thing that keeps parents moving forward.

Life is about giving and receiving and I don't know any single group of individuals who give more than parents of children with autism.  So isn't it wonderful that one of the things they receive is the ability to see these small steps happen right before their eyes?  Whoever said that you can't watch a flower bloom never knew what they were looking for.

Trust Me...It's A Crisis

I've always struggled with numbers but not this one... From the CDC comes this statistic - 1 in 50 children under the age of 17 holds an autism diagnosis.  Even for me, someone who has worked with parents of children with autism for years and suspected for quite some time that even the most recent statistic of 1 in 88 children was low, seeing this in print was simply startling.

Ask anyone whose life has been touched by autism and they'll tell you that it changes everything.  It strains marriages and finances.  Overwhelms resources and time.  Shifts priorities and plans.  Every day, in every possible way, autism overtakes life and the expression ..."let me count the ways" doesn't even scratch the surface in terms of the impact an autism spectrum disorder has on parents, families and well beyond.  Trust me, I know.

At a time when school budgets are being slashed and families are truly hurting by an aching economy, these numbers equate to a huge wake-up call for those who may have been napping.  The need for early intervention services is critical as the earlier supports and services are secured, the greater likelihood that the child can make and sustain progress.  The need for broader and more complex supports for teens has never been greater with social deficits and bullying defining a huge part of life for high school students.  And the need for college-level support is enormous, as the expectations and freedom that accompany the foray into young adult independence brings with it enormous risks.  Trust me, I know.

Working parents have the greatest challenges and if both parents are employed full-time outside of the home or if it's a single parent household, all bets are off.  Therapies, evaluations, research, school meetings, crisis situations...the strain on working parents and their time, finances, and health are beyond what employers and colleagues understand or even recognize. And as I say ad nauseum...behind every child with an autism spectrum disorder is a parent (or two parents) of a child with an autism spectrum disorder.  Trust me, I know.

Autism is complex and multi-faceted, leaving even the most "on" parents buckling under the strain.   Parents find themselves leaving jobs because any hope of work/life balance is greatly compromised if not impossible.  Parents find themselves on Google at 3 a.m. or spending weekends sifting through books and journals.  Parents find themselves remortgaging their homes, borrowing from family members, and altering their way of life beyond what those on the outside could fathom.   Trust me, I know.

Autism is a crisis.  Plain and simple.  It was a crisis five years ago and is even moreso today.  And while many are researching causes and developing new therapies, the reality is that exploding numbers of children and teens are struggling on this very day from wake-up in the morning to sleep (if sleep even happens) at night, in 2nd Grade and 11th Grade, in public schools and private schools.  And standing behind and beside each of these children is a worn, overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused parent - or two parents - trying in herculean ways to find answers and make things better.  Trust me, I know.

When a crisis hits, people mobilize.  Only in this case, it isn't a natural disaster but rather a national crisis impacting not only families in their own homes, but employers as well.  Employers must offer assistance, whether through flexible work options, funds allocated for an employee to use for therapies, private school, or legal counsel, or employee resource groups so working parents can share information and offer support.  Because even with internet research in the middle of the night, what working parent with an 8 or 14-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome has the time or energy to shoulder more than they already are?  Employers also need to recognize that today's children with an autism spectrum disorder will likely be tomorrow's employees programming their computer system or writing their corporate manual.  And in terms of society, everyone needs to begin to understand autism differently, for many pre-conceived notions from years ago are as outdated as go-go boots and wall telephones.

One in 50 children has autism.  It impacts everyone and is a genuine crisis.  Trust me, I know.

 

 

Few Working Parents Are Saying "Ya-hoo" Today

Having just returned from the Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP) annual forum in Baltimore, discussion surrounding Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) and her decision to end telecommuting for employees bubbled up throughout.   No question, many (including me) are talking about this business decision, and it's one that deserves plenty of discussion. Back in the dark ages - when I began working in the work/life arena, terms like job-sharing and telecommuting required definitions and explanations.  They were foreign concepts to many and those remotely familiar with them quickly concluded that it was something the "other guy" may consider doing, but not them.  We've come a long way...until Mayer slammed on the brakes.

Progress means taking two steps forward and one step back.  We try a new strategy or program and then have to pivot and adjust.  But when something that has been earned - whether a promotion or the ability to work remotely - is taken away under the guise of wanting to improve communication and collaboration, it becomes a new game.

Communication is a process that involves sharing information, facts, and ideas.  Collaboration is a method of bringing together minds and talents.  Neither requires that people breathe the same air space or pass each other en route to the cafeteria.  At least not every day.  We've long since passed the "punch in at 9/punch out at 5 (if you're lucky) and I need to see you sitting at your desk whenever I pass by" workplace, and those who have fought for progress in the area of workplace flexibility are not going to relent.  Nor should they.

Anyone who has a pre-schooler, teen with a disability, elderly parent, sick spouse, or simply the desire to adjust their work location as needed would agree that this mandate is a no-go.  It's one thing for an organization to be *working toward* a culture whereby flexible work options are part of their operations, but quite another to have it implemented and then taken away.  Since when did we revert back to measuring productivity by face-time?  And what measures is Mayer using to conclude that communication, collaboration and productivity have suffered because of telecommuting employees?   Certainly she must share.

Along with up-ending the lives of employees in this organization, there's a broader concern, one that I shared with colleagues at AWLP's forum.  Other CEOs - because we know that CEOs communicate and collaborate with other CEOs albeit not in the same building - will now either be re-examining their own flexible work/telecommuting policies under a new lens or will be concluding that no...this entire concept isn't for their organization because if it didn't work for Yahoo, it won't work for them.

A business is its employees.  Not its building or products.  Not its intellectual capital or services.  It's their people.  Diverse individuals struggling every day to balance their work responsibilities with home lives.  Organizations compete for "best company" status and spend millions recruiting and retaining top performers.

Some things we know ...

  • The emphasis on employee health (mental and physical), stress, balance, and flexibility are core business issues and concerns.
  • Employees place a huge emphasis on the importance of their leaders/managers listening to their needs and responding accordingly.
  • Workplace flexibility is always at the top of the list of reasons why an employee joins or remains with an organization.

Yahoo's short and long-term turnover numbers, exit interview results, and their retrenched recruitment strategies (and goals) will definitely be things I want to see.  And while the extent of the fallout will take some time to assess, of this I feel certain - those employees impacted by this archaic policy will either let their feet do the talking or are saying a lot of words these days, most of which would sound something like this ... "*@#!!*#*!!".

Working Parents -- Start Asking The Tough Questions In School

Why are people so afraid to ask questions?  Okay, let me rephrase...why are parents so afraid to ask questions?  Is it because they don't know the questions to ask, don't want to hear the answers, or are reluctant to question people with expertise they may not have?

This question isn't being posed as something simply to consider, but is being directed in particular to working parents with a child who is struggling in school.  The fact is that while most are truly desperate for knowledge, many are reluctant to open the door to access answers.  But before you say, "Hey...I ask plenty of questions," allow me to elaborate.

WHY THE HESITATION?

If you're a working parent, you're already up to your neck with work/life challenges, particularly if you have a child with, for example, Asperger's Syndrome or a learning disability.  You're struggling to figure out what to do (i.e. what interventions or therapies are appropriate), who should do it (i.e. should you push for these services in school or secure them privately), and how to balance it all (i.e. workplace demands and family responsibilities).  It's a boatload of pressure any way you slice it.

But here's where the "questions" issue comes to a head.  Too many of you are reluctant to ask the psychologist who just completed your child's comprehensive testing to explain the results and data in "lay language" so you can understand it.  A 35-page report and you can't decipher much of it.  You're reluctant to ask your child's tutor (who you're paying for) to show you exactly what skills are being addressed.  You're hesitant to ask your child's teacher for data to support progress or to question things during your child's IEP meeting that are unclear or not making sense.  And if you are asking, you're not asking the questions to yield the information you need.

Questions are not being asked when answers are needed most.  Often times, it's because you see these people as "the experts," therefore it would be wrong, disrespectful, insulting, etc. to question them.  But isn't this precisely what's needed?  And aren't they asking you questions that may make you uncomfortable or push your boundaries?  What's truly puzzling is this -- if you take a similar scenario into the business arena, you are likely fine with asking all kinds of questions and your hesitation to ask is minimal.

I'd like to suggest something here -- that you begin to approach your child's education like you do your work.  In other words, ask yourself whether you're getting a return on your investment.  Is your time (often measured by the hours you're spending away from work handling your child's needs or perhaps reducing your work schedule entirely) and your resources (tapping into savings or borrowing from family) yielding positive results?  If you don't know the answer, you're not asking the tough questions.

Working parents who have children with special needs are mired in a "life mural" that requires unmatched work/life balance strategies.  Confusion and feeling overwhelmed is commonplace.  So what's the solution?  Asking the tough questions of "the experts" and expecting clear answers.  And continuing to ask questions if things remain unclear.  This approach yields powerful results ... and isn't this exactly what you're looking for?

Hey Buddy...Have $1.4 Million To Spare?

I don't know about you, but few people who exist in my sphere have this kind of money.  Even those who have been working and saving for years come up way short.  So if someone told you that you needed $1.4 million dollars -- or access to it, what would you say?  And what if you had no option because this was the amount of money it would take to raise your autistic child over his or her lifetime?  Suddenly this number rings at a deafening pitch. Numbers, particularly those that few of us have ever had looking back at us from our check register, are hard to grasp but let's take a quick look anyway -- $1.4 million if the child does not have an intellectual disability; take it to $2.3 million if he or she does.  This is according to preliminary research released in March by AutismSpeaks, which added one other mind-numbing number -- that the annual costs of autism are -- wait for it -- $126 billion.   That's a big number.

But how about this?   Research released today takes these numbers and converts them into words ... words that many people may be able to more easily understand...and act upon.  The costs to parents who are raising a child with autism are *higher* than for parents raising a child with diabetes.   Diabetes.  One of the key health concerns facing children and adults today.  An issue grabbing the attention of doctors, dieticians, educators, and policy makers.  And a focus of most workplace health initiatives and health fairs.  Everyone wants to reduce the number of children and adults struggling with diabetes.  The volume is definitely growing louder and people are starting to take notice and mobilize.

Take notice.  Precisely what's needed in order for employers to recognize that while diabetes is a major issue, so too is autism.  The financial, family, and health toll it takes on working parents to raise a 5-year-old with autism or a 12-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome is enormous.  Even taking the workplace issues of productivity and absenteeism off the table for a minute, the amount of money, time, and resources needed to help their children with autism reach their capabilities brings working parents to bankruptcy.  Forces families to forgo vacations.  Makes second cars a non-option.  Requires more than the occasional holiday visit with grandparents.  And forces many to leave the workforce even with these out-of-orbit costs.

While today's news did not come as a shock, it did raise the need -- okay, my need -- to continue to increase the volume about the toll autism takes on working parents.   I was talking to someone earlier today about employers providing pet insurance to employees -- a great "perk" for sure.  Yet I said that providing supports to working parents who are raising children with autism is not a perk -- it's a necessity.  Isn't the work-life discussion one that revolves around bringing some sanity and balance to otherwise out-of-control life situations?

Few people today are not touched by autism in some way.   This translates into working parents -- many boomers also caring for aging parents -- feeling a level of pressure and responsibility unmatched by many.  The needs continue to emerge yet the resources and supports are difficult if not impossible to access.  Employers play a pivotal role in this equation and it starts by telling these employees, "We get it", just as they do in supporting a range of other issues also impacting their workforce.   But there's one difference.  Parenting a child with autism directly affects more than the employee alone...it affects the child and the family unit as well.  Talk about stress.

Next time you hear something about autism -- and the media is all over the issue -- stop for a minute and think, "So what would I do if someone told me it would take $1.4 million to raise my child into adulthood."  You'd be doing what millions of other parents are already doing -- struggling and hoping someone will listen and help.