As young adults with autism transition from high school to college, work or independent living, they need to have good social skills in order to make friends, engage colleagues and succeed on many levels. When a young adult has a disability, planning ahead is particularly helpful in making a transition.
JCCA’s Compass Program offers a wide range of services for young adults on the Autism Spectrum and other neurologically-based learning disabilities. It is part of Jewish Child Care Association, a comprehensive child and family services organization that helps 16,000 people of all backgrounds every year.
One of our core programs teaches “soft skills:” “The cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness and optimism that characterize relationships with other people” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soft_skills#cite_note-1). These skills are particularly important for young people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) as they learn to work and interact with others.
ASD impacts a person’s ability to “read” body language and facial expressions. It is characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties and restrictive types of behavior. These young adults miss important cues in social situations that are evident to others. Social skills are crucial for success, whether in a learning environment like college, a job opportunity or when trying to make new friends.
Our program allows for growth by developing a sense of comfort within the youth’s peer group. The goals are:
Peer-Based Learning Model
- Learning to develop a sense of empathy and acceptance of the perspective of others
- Conversation skills
- Development of the soft skills that are not quickly identifiable, but are mirrored and emulated by incidental learning
Learning to Self-Regulate
- Taking cues from the environment and situation
- Learning to initiate
- Moderating time
Understanding of Timing,
Respect and Concrete Life Skills
- Using menus and incorporating health concerns
- Budgeting skills and problem-solving skills
- Accepting the environment as non-controllable
Our approach is based on the understanding that we learn best in a natural environment. Incidental learning is a positive intervention to help focus appropriate structured supports for naturally occurring social behavior. We have, for example, weekly dinner groups (Compass Eats) that meet in Long Island, Queens and Westchester and have grown from a small group to 20 or more members at numerous locations. Participants meet to discuss and decide on dinner locations; while dining, groups talk, laugh, share stories and make friends. The dinners, facilitated by mental health professionals, are an effective way for participants to learn about money management, communication skills and appropriate behavior in social situations. Our goal is to purposely “catch” participants doing the right thing and help provide a conducive environment and comfort level so they can make positive choices or be redirected without fear of reprisal or shame.
We have helped one of the Compass Eats dinner youth, Jack, with organizational skills, task management and social skills. We also helped him make the important transition to Manhattanville College where he is now a sophomore majoring in English. We have also helped him maintain a scholarship that requires him to volunteer in the community – he has chosen to volunteer with elderly people at a nursing home. We also coached him to travel to White Plains to visit friends (this was his first experience in White Plains). And, we have taught him to keep a weekly planner to track his assignments. He tells us he would be “lost without it.” Jack says, “The Compass Program has given me more confidence in myself, especially my social skills. At college it helped me learn how to communicate better and at my summer job as a camp counselor it helped me as a professional with coworkers and parents.”
Success can be measured in many different ways. One way we measure it is by the ease and confidence we instill among the young people taking part in these weekly social groups. They develop friendships outside the weekly scheduled dinners and gain the self-confidence to challenge their own thinking. This carries over to educational and work settings. As Albert Einstein once said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA) is a comprehensive child and family services agency. We work with those who need us most, including children who have been neglected or abused, immigrant Jewish families, and those building new lives. Most of our clients come to us because they struggle with poverty or family crises, and because they are working to create an independent future. JCCA helps more than 16,000 children and families every year and is consistently rated at the highest levels for the quality of our programs. In all our work, we are motivated by tikkun olam, the value within Jewish tradition that calls upon all of us to repair the world, and by our belief that every child deserves to grow up hopeful.
Elise Hahn Felix, LCSW, is Director of Transition Services and Dennis Feurestein, LCSW, is Coordinator of the Bridges Program at Jewish Child Care Association’s Compass Project. For more information, please visit http://jccany.org/compass or email firstname.lastname@example.org.