Taylor Aukes is the Community Service Director at Balance Autism in Altoona, Iowa. Rooted in the farms of Iowa, Balance Autism is a leading autism service organization, providing a balance of innovative therapy and passionate care to autistics of all ages. Balance Autism is part of Proof Positive’s Autism Wellbeing Alliance, a community dedicated to enhancing wellbeing outcomes for autistic people, providers, families, and caregivers.

Taylor also attended Proof Positive’s Learning Institute, a professional development workshop for a select group of leaders in autism services. At the Learning Institute, he enhanced his skills in the science and skills of wellbeing and learned how these skills can be adapted to support clients with autism remotely, but you’ll want to hear it from him! 

Balance Autism’s partner and consultant is ShiftAbility, a company based in Cincinnati, Ohio. ShiftAbility advises us on the individuals whom we are remotely supporting. Some of these individuals with autism were living in a group home with 24/7 care and are now in their own apartments or condo. While mostly independent, they still need someone to check in on them and provide support. 

Like many service providers, we’ve experienced staff shortages. For those living independently but still needing a wellbeing check-in, we’ve turned to technology. However, we know empathy is lost when you operate through a screen or phone call. We wanted to problem-solve. How could Balance Autism provide the same value to our clients while using the remote support model? 

So, we set up a pilot program with ShiftAbility and supported its remote support professionals (RSPs) with empathy training. We looked at the current remote conversation flow and brainstormed ways to improve it. An RSP would typically ask, “How are you doing? Do you need anything?” 

These are bland questions that result in bland answers. That’s when I got the idea to incorporate the PERMA+ Snapshot survey (a skill that gives a snapshot rating of how you’re doing regarding Positive Emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Mattering, Accomplishments, and +Health) into RSP training. I taught the RSPs how to complete the survey and make printouts for each individual’s home.

When I first approached staff about using the PERMA+ Snapshot during one of our trainings, they were skeptical. However, after listening to the possible benefits and the science behind the strategy, I had everyone’s buy-in. They knew their previous work with wellbeing check-ins had little value and were excited to use the PERMA+ Snapshot survey as a new tool. It was a simple step to add in, and we’re already seeing positive results. 

Now, our RSPs have reported much more meaningful interactions with our clients, and clients have reported feeling like they’re talking to someone who cares about their wellbeing instead of having dry conversations.

At first, one client was very skeptical and refused to do it. After walking through the process and taking the PERMA+ Snapshot, one RSP was surprised when he held up the survey printout and asked, “Are we doing this or what?” He is a very to-the-point individual, so initiating the PERMA+ check-in was his way of saying he saw value in it. I count that as a success.

We need more targeted interactions and meaningful conversations. For example, if a client has said they want to feel more Serenity for their Positive Emotion (the P in PERMA+), RSPs can ask, “What can I do right now to help you feel Serenity?”

Or when a client says they’re low on physical health (the +Health in PERMA+), the RSP is prompted to remind them, “When you’re feeling low on +Health, going for a walk in the sunshine is going to turn it around. Call back, and we’ll see how you’re doing.” These conversations equip them to work through their low points and take wellbeing seriously.

We know from people like this individual that shifting from in-person to remote support can be a significant and difficult change. The remote setting is new, and it takes some time to get used to it. Individuals receiving tech support are at a point where they don’t need the type of setting in a group with 24/7 care. They don’t need hygiene support or support with activities of daily living; they’re independent. But they’re used to always having someone present. When you remove in-person support, a person who can remind you about medication and steps you need to take to get through your day, it also removes the individual’s safety net. 

The wellbeing check-in, framed by the PERMA+ survey, adds a positive shared connection to their day and independence to their life. We recognize that now that their physical needs are met, we need to start talking about their wellbeing needs. Wellbeing can be a part of how they experience independence and freedom.

That’s why Proof Positive’s work is so important. The skills of happiness prompt us to talk about wellbeing, a topic we all need to discuss more. The skills of happiness like the PERMA+ Snapshot can support wellbeing and independence, which our clients need when they start to experience living on their own. Living independently comes with challenges, and PERMA+ can support those challenges and other things like teaching self-regulation and coping skills.

We’re also digging into wellbeing data in our documentation process. When clients and their teams set annual goals, we’re now including PERMA+ data to see (hopefully positive) changes in their wellbeing over time. That’s what was missing: the wellbeing. So much of a client’s official plan is focused on physical abilities, not mental or emotional needs. We’re looking to make that shift to caring about wellbeing, and the PERMA+ Snapshot and the science and skills of happiness give us a structure to measure and work with wellbeing outcomes. 

Though the first piece we implemented to remotely support clients was the bi-weekly PERMA+ Snapshot, we’re looking forward to adding gratitude practice prompts and Jolts of Joy soon. The skills of happiness have transformed our conversations and brought to light issues about wellbeing. 

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