August 17, 2015. From August 3-7, I was involved in an exciting project training young adults with autism for high tech jobs. This intensive 5 day program was organized by the Arc of Philadelphia and titled “Soft Skills for the Workplace.” This event was the fruit of collaboration between a non-profit (Arc), private industry (SAP), the Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Montgomery County Community College. I and self-advocate Dr. Stephen Shore were the lead trainers along with The Arc of Philadelphia staff, Tanya Regli (executive director), Tom Cory, and Sabra Townsend.
For 5 days, from 8 AM to 3 PM, 25 young people were energetically engaged learning and developing the social or “soft skills” they need to put their “hard skills” to use in the workplace where they have previously been unemployed or underemployed. Using a variety of teaching strategies, the unique curriculum topics such as:
- Improving conversation skills
- Sensory differences and coping strategies
- Self-advocacy and self-disclosure skills
- Stress management (or meltdown prevention)
- Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media
(An in-depth report on the transition to adulthood for young adults with autism is available through the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.)
Autism does not end when a child reaches adulthood; unemployment and underemployment are extremely high for adults with autism even for those with college degrees. Stress for families goes up once formal education is over and services are few and far between especially for those without cognitive disability. Many parents live in a state of chronic desperation. From the families I meet at conferences or in my psychology practice, I frequently hear “I cannot even die” or “Our nest will never be empty.”
Of the 25 individuals who attended this training, 5 are already employed through theSAP “Autism at Work” Program. The others will begin internships at SAP or other companies open to hiring people with autism who have technical skills in the near future. It’s a win-win. Companies get dedicated workers who are grateful to be employed with good skills and attention to details. Government costs for services are decreased, and families can breathe a sigh of relief.
The autism and special needs community has a long way to go to provide a meaningful future for those able to work. Going forward, I will be working with Stephen Shore and the Arc of Philadelphia to develop this training so that it can be replicated by other trainers in various locations and for a wide range of jobs.