By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer
Northborough – A statistic gnaws at Nancy Swanberg, founder of The Friendship Network for Children, a Northborough-based award-winning nonprofit autism support organization. She noted that a recent census report indicates that 60 to 70 percent of people on the autism spectrum in the United States are unemployed and was inspired to create a program to address this issue. Beginning Oct. 19, the Friendship Network will begin a ten-week “Soft Skills” vocational program for young adults on the autism spectrum.
According to Swanberg, most problems faced by human resources departments with regard to hiring autistic employees are deficits in “people skills” rather than job-specific skills. With social skills and social communication being a serious challenge for people with autism, she added, workplaces can be scary and uncomfortable for those unequipped with skills to manage other people’s expectations.
Knowing what is appropriate to say to a boss versus a friend is relatively intuitive for most neuro-typical people, Swanberg said. But for people on the autism spectrum, understanding hierarchy and other political nuances of the workplace is a puzzle.
“The subtlety of job-related social skills is more complicated, and they have found that people on the autism spectrum can unwittingly find themselves in tough situations that they’re not prepared for, and the workplaces aren’t always that compassionate,” Swanberg said.
Prior to formulating the new program, Swanberg worked on a pilot study with Tiffany Kline, a counselor and service coordinator at her agency, to test their theory that “soft skill” training could make a positive difference.
The pair set up a controlled environment wherein participants on the autism spectrum were provided training prior to beginning work duties on a job site. The skills they developed resulted in positive outcomes, and the theory regarding the necessity of social skill training for workplace success was confirmed, Swanberg noted.
Both Swanberg and Kline are excited about the new vocational program. They look forward to helping participants gain an understanding of their disability; be able to problem-solve and communicate; advocate for their own needs around sensory issues like noise; be able go to an interview with confidence; and be happy in the work place.
In addition to vocational challenges, Swanberg is also concerned about the prevalence of autistic people to commit suicide due to frustration and intolerance. A research study by the Pennsylvania State College of Medicine found people on the autism spectrum (low functioning to high functioning) to be 28 times more likely to consider suicide.
“My experience is the anxiety and depression can be extreme, and it’s due to the rest of the world not understanding them,” she said.
In an effort to help bridge the gap of understanding, Swanberg wrote a book, “The Connection Formula – How to Autism-ize Your Thinking and Become Your Child’s Lifeline.” Published in 2014, the book is aimed at helping neuro-typical family members, professionals and others who share the world with those on the autism spectrum, to “reformulate” their thinking and form a supportive connection with those on the spectrum.
With its services expanding, the Friendship Network for Children outgrew its previous space on Otis Street in Northborough, and recently moved uptown to 300 W. Main St., Building C, Unit 4.
For more information about the Friendship Network for Children, visit www.networkforchildren.org or call 508-393-0030.