Fellowship Prepares Young Adults with Autism for Careers


An innovative fellowship in Massachusetts is helping parents, employers, and state legislators to support and empower people with autism. Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), a legal advocacy organization, created the Young Adult Leaders Fellowship, which helps young adults with autism prepare for work, gain new skills, and perhaps most importantly, learn to advocate for themselves and others.

The fellowship is in its third year. Catherine Mayes, Autism Project Advocate at MAC, helps run the program and works with many of the young adults who are participating in it. “We wanted to bring these young adults into our workplace and collaborate with them, in order to provide them with an opportunity for a very expanded workplace, but also to learn about the challenges of transitioning ourselves,” Mayes says. “The fellows have taught us so much about special education needs, and have really informed our legal and legislative initiatives and our advocacy policy.”

To become a fellow, young adults fill out the application, which is reviewed by MAC staff along with help from the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “After reviewing the applications, we bring in people we believe would really match our fellowship,” Mayes explains. “We interview them, examine a writing sample, and we get it down to two or three and then we make the hard decision.” In addition, applicants are asked to send in a resume or a statement of what they’ve been doing with their time.

MAC receives a few dozen applications, and only two or three prospective fellows are interviewed. “We reach out to schools, like Boston Public Schools for example,” Mayes says. “Even if you don’t become a fellow, it’s a great opportunity to get interviewed and to learn this process.”

Fellows begin with an orientation and training, in order to give them a complete understanding of expectations, and how to behave in an office. Then they learn certain basic tasks, such as filing, answering phones, mailings, and going to staff meetings.

These tasks may sound routine, but they tap into crucial skills for young people preparing to enter the job market. And they’re especially important for people with disabilities to master. Mayes notes that a person on the autism spectrum may not understand the impact of their behavior on others, on how to act in meetings–when to listen and when to talk. “So we help and support the fellow to gain those skills.”

The fellowship lasts for one year, and fellows are given a stipend enough to cover expenses.

“My goal is for everyone who leaves here has more skills than when they came and are prepared for the workplace,” Mayes says. “My larger goal is that they have learned to advocate for themselves in the workplace, and to advocate for others.”

One of this year’s fellows is Val McIver, who has been participating in training with families, among other roles. “There’s been a time when people will come up to me and say that I’ve made a difference in her life from one of my presentations,” McIver says.

“We’re working in the Hispanic community, helping families understand the rights of their children, and that if they receive services there’s great potential for their kids,” Mayes observes.

The fellowship has taught McIver a number of great skills which will help her long-term employment goals. “Each day is a bit different. I learn from everyone at MAC. I’ve gone to lobby at the State House, or might stay here and work on office tasks, or attend a meeting.”

In addition, McIver has learned a number of “soft skills.” “I’m learning how to be flexible and be more comfortable with unfamiliar places,” she says. “For instance, sometimes the plan will change and I’ll have to go someplace other than the office to do a presentation or meeting. For people on the autism spectrum, change is hard, and being flexible is harder. The fellowship has allowed me to be flexible and also to understand my boundaries.”

Through the Young Adult Leaders Fellowship, young people like Val McIver develop self-confidence and improve their communication skills, essential for finding fulfilling work. College of Employment Services courses train employment professionals to help people build “soft skills” like these. Check out our Principles of Career Exploration class as a starting point.

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