In his 60 Minutes interview on CBS News, Recruiting for Talent on the Autism Spectrum, Anderson Cooper interviews individuals with Autism about what it’s like finding a job as a person on the spectrum. Their responses on why having a job is meaningful to them include:
1) providing structure,
2) financial independence and autonomy, and
3) the ability to talk about work with parents and peers.
At FLC, our experience working with individuals with IDD over the last 12 years confirms the interviewees’ responses, and we want to break down each one a little more to shed light on the Friends’ experiences with inclusive employment and what it means to find and retain meaningful work.
Since 2008 the Friends have volunteered their time in the community in many ways. They have given thousands of hours of service to local nonprofits such as The Nashville Food Project and Fifty/Forward Fresh Meals on Wheels, and have won volunteer awards from both! They have kept a schedule each week providing meaningful support to these nonprofits and others so that more people in Nashville can access their services. (Our other nonprofit partners include Second Harvest Food Bank, Project C.U.R.E., Hillsboro Presbyterian Church, Woodmont Baptist Church’s food pantry and day care, and Christ Presbyterian Church.)
The Friends have a set schedule each week to know where they are going to serve each day and are very familiar with the tasks they will complete when they arrive. This structure provides a sense of comfort and stability for the Friends. They know what to expect each week and they look forward to it. It guides their week, giving them a time to get up and be ready in the morning, and it provides them with purpose throughout the day. This is both an asset and a skill.
Many of us have experienced the challenges of returning to school after a long summer break or back to work after an extended vacation; it can be hard to get motivated and return to the routine. And at the same time, it does not feel as rewarding to be unproductive. The longer individuals are away from a routine after they age out of school, the more difficult it is to get back into a routine and find purpose in the structure of the day.
By experiencing the structure of having regular work and being expected to complete tasks with detail and precision, the Friends grow in their interest of finding paid employment and building their resumes. Over 50% of the Friends are employed in the community – well over the national average for adults with IDD. They find meaning in owning their schedules and enjoying the independence of navigating the structure of their week.
Financial Independence and Autonomy
Do you remember your first paycheck and how it felt to spend that money? For many Friends, they are well into adulthood before ever receiving their first paycheck. For each of us, earning a paycheck provides pride and the dignity of receiving something for your effort. It also provides spending power, which is the ultimate feeling of autonomy.
Individuals with IDD often have much fewer opportunities to make decisions for their own lives. Without viable employment, they often rely on family members and/or receive government aid to pay bills and cover needs. This can stifle the feeling of independence. However, this all changes when they can earn money and decide for themselves how to spend it.
Through the Life Coaching program at FLC, we work with many individuals who are working in the community and earning a paycheck every two weeks. Budgeting is one of the more difficult skills to learn for many of the Friends. Paying bills and saving enough money for “needs” is a hard lesson to learn and many of the Friends can overspend and be impulsive in purchasing their “wants.” Instead of taking autonomy away from the Friends, FLC coaches work with individuals to help them establish a structure that is easier to follow and make decisions for spending that will allow them to cover their bills and still find motivation to work for the items they want to purchase. Everyone deserves the opportunity to spend the money they earn.
The Ability to Talk About Work with Family and Peers
For the Friends who work in the community, one of the ways they introduce themselves to others is by their place of employment. It is often the first topic of conversation when talking to neurotypical peers, and it is often their point of reference when relating to others. For many individuals with IDD, not having a job is the main differentiator that separates them from others. Employment is normalized in our society and is an expected part of adulthood. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and “What do you do for a living?” are everyday questions we may hear. Think about it: how many small talk conversations are work-related?
The Friends gain confidence and self-worth when they are able to discuss common experiences, such as their day at work. The feeling of inclusion goes beyond the workplace and builds that sense of belonging both at home and in the community.
Inclusive employment is not just about the individual or the place where they work. When a person is given an opportunity to work, they are also given purpose and security in having structure throughout their week. They are given independence in making decisions and autonomy with the money that they earn. This leads to a feeling of pride and dignity. And they are given common experiences which they can discuss with others and feel a part of age-appropriate conversations. This builds relationships and expands their network beyond family and paid supports.
Inclusive employment increases their quality of life and confidence which leads to a ripple effect of positive change, not only for the individual but for society as a whole. It leads to belonging and everyone deserves a place to belong.
Friends Life Community (FLC) was founded in 2008 by families with the intent to ensure that their loved ones with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), or as we call them “Friends”, would have full and meaningful lives after high school. Every parent wants their child to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, career opportunities, friendships, and a support system that will launch them successfully into adulthood. For these families, if they wanted their children to experience these things, they had to create a support system that would provide these opportunities.
Employment opportunities have been a part of the Friends Life Community vision from the very beginning because part of being an adult is having a meaningful role in the community. Everyone deserves the opportunity to share their abilities and be appreciated for them. Each of us looks for jobs where we know we are valued for what we have to give and the Friends are no different. However, until inclusive employment is a part of the larger workplace culture, these opportunities must be intentionally created. We have found that by creating these opportunities, the community as a whole learns and shifts its mindset to be more inclusive.
By Waverly Ann Harris, M.S.ABA, Executive Director
Waverly Ann Harris joined FLC in 2011 as the first Program Director in order to develop and grow the Day Program. She became Executive Director in 2016. Waverly Ann holds a Master of Education in Applied Behavioral Analysis from Lipscomb University.
She has diverse nonprofit experience, both nationally and internationally, and brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experience with nonprofit management in human services, using her talents to lead and manage programs focused on collaboration and positive behavior system-wide.