The Spectrum Works Online SLE Remote Work and Learning Program Gives Young Adults with Autism a Sense of Purpose While at Home
(Secaucus, New Jersey) Spectrum Works, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to providing job training and employment opportunities for New Jersey high school students and other young adults with autism, has transitioned its successful on-site learning model to a remote distance learning format incorporating most of the components of the traditional program. For individuals with autism, who typically depend on routines to feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, the present time can be especially challenging. The transition to a distance learning model allows students to continue valuable learning and skill building uninterrupted in the midst of the school shutdown and will extend through summer 2020. The Online SLE Remote Work and Learning Program is taught by a team of highly trained job coaches and includes job readiness training with a focus on social skills (a challenge for many people with autism); career building skills such as job searching, resume and cover letter writing, and interviewing; and real-world office work assignments. Rather than rely on simulated training scenarios, Spectrum Works prepares participants for the professional world by integrating them directly into their own business operations as well as those of partner companies, including FM Expressions, the largest t-shirt manufacturer in the country with clients such as the NFL, Harley Davidson, and Universal Music Group (a distributor for over 300 recording artists). Assignments include data entry, graphic design, social media, internet research, and other related work, and allow participants to earn an actual salary. The unique ability for young adults with autism to directly apply their learning and skill development to influence industry and experience the results first-hand gives them unlimited potential for leading stable, successful, economically self-sufficient lives in the future. Parents and participating schools alike view the program as transformational. "The transition to the remote format has been a great experience for everyone. The staff and job coaches have gone above and beyond their usual great support to make working from home for my students extremely successful," said Keith Pearson, SLE program coordinator and FBLA advisor for Newmark Education. But it is the students themselves, some of whom are normally quiet, who have the most to say about how their days at home have been spent since their lives were temporarily altered. When asked what he liked about the online program, one student said it was the visual contact. A key component of the program involves improving social skills, something several of the students seemed to embrace when required to interact directly without distractions. In the business world, these are often referred to as soft skills, and the students are well aware that they are just as important as their other talents if they expect to be employed successfully -- especially in terms of stress management, which is a part of the module almost universally cited as a favorite. Isolation can be an issue for some with autism, and the ability to interact virtually with their peers as well as job coaches greatly assists in reducing anxiety. "I really love it [the program] because I get to talk to the job coaches and say how I feel about today," states Jeremy, a student in the online program. A few have even found ways to bond with their job coaches over common interests, further building trust and enriching the learning experience. "I like working with Jonathan (a Spectrum Works job coach) because he helps me and is into Nintendo like me," he adds. Enzo, another student, remarked, "I miss my job coaches dearly and wish I could see them in person." But there is an upside to remote learning for him. "I'm glad I can skip the bus ride and head into work instantaneously." A student who wished to remain anonymous added, "They [the job coaches] are the best people I have ever met. I want to thank Andrea, Maritza, Mary and Francesca for all their help. They are the best, and I love them all." Marketable skills such as proper email and letter composition, data entry, research (one project involved gathering data on how large companies were responding to the coronavirus), and training on Adobe Creative Suite programs accompany practical skills such as how to write a resume and cover letter and interview for a job. But it is applying what is learned to actual paid work assignments that gives students the biggest sense of value and accomplishment. "I like how I'm able to make some money and do it in the comfort of my own home," said one student. "It makes me feel like I have a real job," adds another. Ann Marie Sullivan, Spectrum Works CEO & Founder, states, "I researched 'autism and employment' in 2011 and found an imbalance between the growing population of individuals with autism and the low percentage who are employed and decided to do something about it. Now, with our Online SLE Remote Work and Learning Program, we are giving our participants access to life-changing skills and learning opportunities at a time when they are disconnected from their normal routines and need it more than ever. I am proud of our students, but also my staff for rising to the challenge and continuing to assist in promoting a better future for young adults with autism during this crisis." Fransesca Petracco, a Spectrum Works job coach, remarked, "I believe my job is vital because it proves that individuals with autism ARE capable. A student may not know how to complete a task yet, but that doesn't mean that they cannot learn. When we look at challenges as opportunities for growth rather than failures, we can see the potential for each individual." Andrea Franco, another job coach, adds, "I am proud of our students every day, especially when they are able to complete a task they once struggled with. Watching them become aware of their abilities is a beautiful thing." When asked about three important things they have learned that will help them personally or professionally in the future, one student put it best: "Always be respectful toward your co-workers. Don't take the easy way out of assignments; your employers want to see effort in your work. And building relationships will be important to future success." These students are learning their lessons well.