Autism and Employment Opportunities | Interview with Ann Marie Sullivan

When children with autism get close to the age of graduating, the question then becomes what’s next and what type of employment opportunity will there be for them. It can seem daunting but we can break it down. For example, how many steps does it take to teach someone to fold a washcloth? If the washcloth is torn or stained, how many additional choices does someone need to make to put the washcloth in the correct place in the laundry room? Answering these kinds of questions is one way that Ann Marie Sullivan and her team at Spectrum Works breaks down tasks into simple steps that children with autism can understand.

As an entrepreneur, Ann Marie enjoyed success in the business world, but she wanted to be involved in a social enterprise. Her “fall” into the autism world came when she joined a company that served people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and her employees were so happy to have a job that she knew she needed to make this program bigger and more sustainable than it was so that it could reach more people.

Even children as young as four or five can be taught future work skills by focusing on building self care skills, following directions and listening for instructional cues.  By the time they get into a program like Ann Marie’s, they’re better prepared to integrate into a work atmosphere. Rather than measuring a child by their language ability, Ann Marie’s company measures them by their independence level per task. Building that independence level slowly over time can give a child with autism structure in their schedule, and it can make them happy and proud about the work they can do.

Of course, there are some unique challenges presented by working with this popuation. Finding business partners, working with schools, and the drop-off in services once a child ages out of the school system can make connecting this community with employment even harder. Surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated growth for Spectrum Works across the US. At a time when unemployment is high all around the country, Ann Marie remains positive about the future of employment for adults and with autism.


Ann Marie Sullivan is the founder and CEO of Spectrum Works, a Job Training and Employment Program that incorporates integrated on-the-job training, classroom-based learning with a focus on soft skills, and competitive employment opportunities via partnerships with participating companies for people with autism. Ann Marie is an entrepreneur with two decades of experience in building and managing start-up organizations, to address a critical disconnect between an 80% unemployment rate for individuals with autism and their value to the workforce as employees with inherent skills and abilities. In 2013 she was finally able to make the Spectrum Works non-profit vision a reality.


    • How to identify the best kind of work for children with autism.
    • When to begin teaching a child with autism how to work.
    • The companies that Ann Marie partners with, and the positive reactions she’s had from them.
    • My evaluation system when deciding if a child enjoys the task they’ve been given.
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RESOURCES (Sign up for a free workshop online for parents and professionals)
Autism and Happiness: Programming for Happiness in Children with Autism
What is an IEP for Kids with Autism?
#089: Autism in India & ABA Training in Multiple Languages | Interview with Dr. Smita Awasthi
#091: COVID-19’s Implications on Free Appropriate Public Education with Gary Mayerson
#043: Autism Legal Rights & Transition to Adulthood: Interview with Autism Attorney Gary Mayerson
Daily Activity Data Sheet
Spectrum Works

Transcript for Podcast Episode: 097
Autism and Employment Opportunities | Interview with Ann Marie Sullivan
Hosted by: Dr. Mary Barbera

Mary: You're listening to The Turn Autism Around podcast episode number 97. Today, I have a guest, Ann Marie Sullivan, who is the founder and CEO of Spectrum Works, which is a job training and employment program that incorporates integrated on the job training, classroom-based learning with a focus on soft skills and competitive employment opportunities, be up partnerships with participating companies. So I really enjoyed this interview because we talked a lot about how to work with both teens who are in school and how to work with young adults and how to incorporate companies. And what are some of the advantages of hiring adults or teens on the spectrum? Some of their unique gifts.

Mary: We also talk about some of the challenges I've had with my own son, Lucas, who's now 24, as well as some of my clients who have lower language abilities and how to incorporate them into jobs. So I think this is a great episode where you can learn a lot about job training and the importance of work when it comes to safety, independence and happiness, which are my goals for every child and adult with autism. So let's get to this important interview with Ann Marie.

Mary: Thanks for joining us, Ann Marie. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Ann Marie: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Mary: Yeah. So I don't know much about you, but I have checked out the Web site and I know a little bit about you. But I am curious to know how you got involved with the whole autism community and describe your fall into the autism world, if you have a personal story or somehow you landed here.

Ann Marie: That's a great question. Thank you for asking. And if I tend to get really passionate about it. So it's a long story. I'll try to make it into something more so that I don't take up all of the time. So I don't have a personal connection in terms of a family member or a friend. That's not how I started. But I'd like to tell the story because I feel like I am everybody I am everybody in society that didn't have that. And because of my story and because of the connection I have now, I feel that anybody could. So my background is that I was a for profit entrepreneur. I've had medical education, publishing companies, education companies in Europe, most of my adult life, giving education for all types of therapeutic areas to specialists and doctors all over the Nordic countries and different parts of Europe. And I had other publishing companies and I really wanted to do something more rewarding with my life after I sold it. And I traveled around the world. I volunteered in very crazy remote places around the world from the jungles of Papua New Guinea to Africa.

Ann Marie: And I'm not a doctor, not an environmentalist. I'm not a teacher. So I could do what they asked me to do. And it was amazing and I enjoyed it. And it was it was very fulfilling, but I didn't feel like I had as creative impact as I really wanted to because I didn't have those skill sets. But I was an entrepreneur, so I started reading about social enterprise. And that is you need to be a for profit or a nonprofit, but it has a social mission. For a nonprofit, it just means that you have other revenue streams. Instead of just relying on donations and grants, you try to earn income as well as part of your pie. And so I went to New York. I moved back to New York. I started volunteering at a nonprofit consulting company. And I helped them to start their social enterprise division. We'd go out to nonprofit leaders and executives, teaching them about earned income and also doing projects. So we got called in to do a project with an organization, a very large organization in New York. And they had a small program that was a social enterprise for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Ann Marie: And I thought they were losing money and they were gonna shut them down. And I thought, wow, I had to come in and I'm going to write a business plan and I'm going to make them profitable. And hopefully they can make a big impact. But everything changed the moment I walked in the door in. And it was a small social enterprise. They were working in screen printing and they were laughing and they were telling me these amazing stories about having a job, how having a job changed their lives in so many ways that I just didn't think about. They were singing and telling me they had a social life. Now, even if it meant just going out to dinner or a movie once a month with somebody. And so these amazing stories, it changed me more than me going in to be able to change their organization. And they had a program for high school students with autism. And I started to Google and research autism. And I saw 80 percent unemployed.

Ann Marie: And I thought, oh, that's such an incredible amount of people. And I I fell in love with the program over the course with me working there. And I thought this needs to be bigger than it is. How can it be bigger than it is? How can it be sustainable? They ended up shutting them down while later. But I walked away thinking about and I couldn't stop thinking about how I could make an impact and I thought I could write a business plan, came up with a business strategy and an idea, and then took two years to try and get it funded. But I felt that autism was what I wanted to focus on because I the statistics were so great compared to even other types of disabilities and that I wanted to focus on that. And that's how I fell into it. So when I say I am everybody, when I saw that people with autism and other special needs could be productive and how it changed your life, not just having a paycheck, but friendships, we all want to have some type of social interaction. And you can do that. We all do that through a job.

Ann Marie: We feel useful and productive, whatever that might be. And I thought, you know, this is this is how I want to make an impact in the world. And if by seeing it changed me, I felt that if we show companies and employees at companies and give them the opportunity that I had, that we can change mindsets. And so the vision of spectrum works is to, you know, increase awareness among society that people with autism can be valuable, productive employees. And that to where the vision. Was created was from that moment, a moment that I first my first interaction, and I believe that if people, not everybody, not every company, but if they just had the opportunity to be around people and work with people on the spectrum, that they would change and think that they're productive and want to work next to them would be their coworkers.

Mary: Yeah, I love that. What year was it when you went and met people with developmental disabilities that were working? What year was that?

Ann Marie: It was around sometime in 2009. No, sorry, 2011.

Mary: OK. So, so roughly a decade now you've been. You fell into the autism world about a decade ago, and now you're the CEO of Spectrum Works. And the website is really full of information And we're going to talk about basically the unemployment rate among people with autism and some of the solutions that you're finding over the past decade to help these individuals. And I know personally, we chatted a little bit before I hit record.

Mary: But, you know, I have a son who's twenty-four with pretty significant autism and mild intellectual disability. And, you know, it is a struggle. People say, you know, once the school bus stops coming, you know, it's like you fall off a cliff in terms of services, not in every case. And I definitely had a different experience with that. Lucas gets pretty much support. I have had guests on the podcast. Gary Mayerson's been on twice. He just wrote a book. And it's a lot about how did how to change the trajectory for adults and get them working and productive. And my goals for every child with/without autism is for them to be as safe as possible, as independent as possible and as happy as possible.

Mary: And so for Lucas, for instance, he's 24, like I know he's happiest in certain tasks and certain, you know, with structure. And, you know, it is different because you have and I know you're in New Jersey. I'm in Pennsylvania. We have people listening from all over the world. I did a podcast interview recently with somebody from India, you know, like we have a global audience. So we're not going to get into the nitty gritty of exactly what the regs are or what the funding is for your company or in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. But I think it's a universal problem that teens and adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. And I think you document that well on your Web site with five hundred thousand young adults with autism are graduating in the next 10 years. You know, some people have described it as a tsunami of the wave of autism. And are you seeing those numbers just everywhere you go?

Ann Marie: So I would say that, yes. And maybe even recently, we have an update at our Web site. But they have even increased that to they think around seven hundred thousand to one point one million in the next ten years. We have to update our Web site. But, yes, we have seen in our model is that we work with high school students and young adults with autism who have graduated. But because we work a lot with high schools, we see. And in talking to them is that the number is even increasing. They're seeing the numbers in their programs in their 18 to 21 growing as well. So we feel that the best thing to do. Like our mission is to give job training and employment to high school students and young adults with autism by building inclusive workforces of companies. And we do that by working with high school. We start them young. So you talk about, you know, independent, happy lives. We feel that the younger you start, somebody on that independence trail is the better. And we start our program at 16.

Ann Marie: We have a government program now that's funded and they even required 14 that we start them on the employment trail. And they are incorporated into real companies onsite. Is our program during their normal school day. We give them soft skills training. And we developed a curriculum with a Monk University. And I can go into that a little later about what we do. And we give them the soft skills training and then we go out on the job and they actually work doing the work next to coworkers and peers and learning. And we talk about independence. We think that's a really important skill. As you said, if depending on whatever that independence level is and you start them young and I was at a seminar once and the person that I work with from Montclair University, an autism professor, they asked her, you know, how young should we start? And she said, as young as, again, four years old and five years old, give them small tasks and ask them to do them as part like whatever that task might be at home and try to build up whatever level of the small levels of independence. So by the time they get to my program, they have some skills. But for us, you know, making trying to have people being independent. A lot of our program is geared around not the levels, but levels of independence as opposed to high functioning, low functioning in different tasks. And we can go into a little bit more about that later. But again, have healthier lives, as we all strive for.

Mary: Yeah, I know when I was when Lucas was probably 10 or 12, I was working as behavior analyst and some of my clients were getting older and older and passing the 14-year age, which is according to the Individuals with Disabilities Act. It's the age of transition is 14 in the United States. So that's when you have to start at least talking about transition and what they're going to do in the future and that sort of thing. So because Lucas had a behavior analyst on his IEP, like from 10 from the age of 10 on, she was great in terms of working with the school district to place Lucas. And he went to a local diner, and he wiped down chairs and that sort of thing, and wiped down menus and filled the salt and pepper shakers. He even worked within the school, like in the cafeteria, restocking or putting fruit and cups. He worked at a hotel in two hotels doing laundry, and that was a good job.

Mary: But I was able when he was ten or twelve, I was out there consulting with kids that were getting older. And one of the big things, just like an aha moment as a behavior analyst early on when I was working with adults in placements like that, I would go into the hospital laundry and I'd be like, OK, show me your simplest job. Because I was working with kids that, like Lucas, are pretty impaired. Like they're not conversational. They are, you know, toilet trained and that sort of thing.

Mary: But they're going to they don't have good decision-making abilities, at least at that point. So I'm like, show me your symbolist job. And it was just folding a washcloth in half and stacking twenty-five and then moving that pile to the bin. And I was like, okay, that sounds super simple. Like she showed me a couple other jobs, but like we all agreed that this was the simplest job. But then you get into if the washcloth has a hole in it, if it's stained, if you drop it on the floor and you know, if you drop it on the floor, it just can be re washed. It's just all these little decisions that are part of the simplest task. And so the other obstacle we found and I would love your expertise on this, but, you know, there are a lot of kids who like multiple step things but don't like the monotony. Some kids really like the monotony. Some kids like to sit down to do the work versus standing. And some kids do more physical stuff, like how do you assess that? And you said you do. We work on levels like do you have criteria that the child's too low to even work with your company? Or too high.

Ann Marie: When I meant levels like we don't. It's the structure, is it? When we talk about, like high functioning, low functioning and functioning, like I don't like that verbiage, like for people we because we're talking about work related things and social skills related to office or not office, but work. We say independence level per task rate. So some people, for example, talking to my job coaches and, you know, for her. Like, so the person because now we've got our remote. We'll talk about that later. But it adds a whole other layer of communication challenges. And so they can you know, we try to make them independent as soon as possible when they go off and do some work and then ask questions. And some of them could call with no problem on the video thing and talk about what those problems are, what questions you might need. But they have some challenges with actually typing in the text into the chat and stuff because they can't read it. It's because they it's the writing part. So their independence level on being able to ask, you know, by writing is a different independence level to maybe ask a question verbally. So things are written, things step relate. So when we assess, we usually work since we work a lot with high schools and we really value the fact that they've worked with them a long time.

Ann Marie: And they see our program, whether it's online virtually now or in person, and they help us to make those decisions. So they bring this parents. The students come, the teachers. Everybody does. So we meet them and they meet us to know whether it's a good fit. So we try to be a team and value the opinion of the people who know them best. We have a questionnaire that we ask for the school to fill out. And the parent and student themselves. So we get some variance. Great. Yeah, we see the IEP, which is Individualized Education Plan, not every country probably has the same name for that or even at all. But it's just, you know, it's just it tells you about I'm not going to go into the details.

Mary: The plan we've talked about. IEPs a bunch, you know, here. And when I say globally, if somebody is paying for therapy, there will be a plan and there will be goals and there will be hand assessment. So I think it's great that you're not only asking the school to fill out a survey, but you're also asking the parent with the help of the child if they can like Lucas's level, he would be able to help. One of the really good things that I can probably share this in the show notes is Lucas's behavior analyst developed this form that we still use to this day for volunteer and any work activities, that sort of thing, because Lucas doesn't even have the language ability to say, like, that task is boring. I like this job better than this job.

Mary: He doesn't even have the language ability to express his likes or dislikes. So she created a form that, like I said, and I was involved with some of the creation, but it was really her doing. And she so we keep track of say it's paper shredding. So it's paper shredding, the date and the time frame, say 20 minutes of paper shredding. That's a task he likes. So the person with him will be keeping track of props and speed his speed. And we just basically say it's low, medium or high. And his affect, meaning his happiness from his body, from his non-verbal cues. And so his affect is low, medium and high. So we can say paper shredding is one of high speed, low prompts and high affect. You know, folding laundry is this speed that you know. And so I remember pretty early on, maybe Lucas was 18. The behavior analysts had these all graphed his high-speed jobs. We know we know what jobs are going to be good for him.

Mary: And he is a great worker, even though he doesn't have the language ability to really say things. Right now, he's doing a lot of volunteer work at the food bank locally, and that's been a really good thing. Do you have any kind of forms like that that you use to check out kids and to see how they're doing?

Ann Marie: Yeah. And we do we have we have a lot of ways that we keep track and including that we have a job log that every day gets filled out by with what the students did, how long they did it for. And then at the end of the day, we asked the students themselves to fill out a question and they're kind of not too long. And so that we can gather like what they liked, but they didn't like about it. Things like to change to a new task to get some feedback from them while they're feeling how they're feeling, because it's very fresh. I know in your case that you said that he wouldn't be that wouldn't be something that he'd be able to fill out on his own. We've have had students in the past where when we were doing it, we had an online and they would go back to school and the school personnel would sort of help them walk through how they would feel about something. But definitely how they're doing on a job and how much they what they think of it.

Ann Marie: We have goal plans. So everybody within the first couple of weeks of coming on board, did they get to sit down with them? They do some of the soft skills training program and part of that is goal planning together with the students themselves. They get to participate in their goal planning and their plan on how to do that. And then we have to do evaluations periodically with them, with us, together with the employee at the companies that we work with. So we get feedback from them as well as these students, as well as the job coaches and the people that work directly with them. So we're trying to gather as much information and from the person themselves. But I'd like your idea for especially for instances where you can't get the answer from the person directly, but you have other means through the affect and keeping track. Those three benchmarks are great.

Mary: Yeah, we'll put that in the show notes. And maybe you can even adapt that for use with your students who aren't as verbal. I had another boy who I worked with from sixth grade all the way up through twenty-one and he was like Lucas where he couldn't really tell you exactly but he had a problem behavior. What I started with him, he had what we call defective mans for attention. And so he would, you know, basically for the layman's terms, he would have this kind of quote unquote nonsense language. Like I would walk in and he'd be like, Miss Mary has a striped shirt on. Can I hop like a kangaroo? Keep reading. Go on. Like he could read, but he couldn't comprehend. It was very scattered skills. And so I was like, oh my goodness, this is like Berry disruptive, like he was in sixth grade. I was thinking, like, if he worked at like Friendly's busing tables, like he would be so disruptive to people eating, you know, his level of this defective language. Defective mans for attention was through the roof. Five hundred a day. I had staff count.

Mary: And then over time, we got this defective manding way down. And when he was in a vocational program, he went to the local vo tech where we tried different jobs that the grocery store bakery and that sort of thing. And when we found jobs. Like, you could give this boy a task and give me the same task. And within fifteen minutes he would be twice as fast with high quality. He was such a good worker. But if he didn't have anything to do, he would get so defective with his manding. And so we actually use that that counting system of his defective mans to pick the best jobs. And so he was down to single digit defective mans when he was in the right job.

Mary: And so I know you probably are working with kids with higher language in general, but I do know that people that listen to this podcast that follow my work, because my book, The Verbal Behavior Approach in my courses are more for kids with a one to five year old level of language. And a lot of times they are not conversational. But all of these job skills that you do that I've done in the past can be applied across the spectrum. We just have to get good at knowing what the best situation is with the best jobs. I think it's great. OK.

Ann Marie: So if I could just interrupt you for one second. Yeah. One of the boys I started, now he's a man starting with our very first ones, he would stem and he stemmed a lot when he was idle, like he's the best worker, super-fast, loves to work with his hand and it gets fields, loves the productivities. At the end of the day, he would tell his father, you know him on video, telling the father, telling the story, and he would give us just so proud of how many did he would count his head like thousands, and he'd know exactly how many did. But when he was idle and then he was waiting or had to wait for the next task or something, he was not able to go get the next task. There was the stuff wasn't available yet because other people were doing other things. He would spin a lot, rock back and forth and talk to himself. And so we noticed that it is it happened the more time that he was not doing anything. So we try to have the people around him. Just all you have to do is just say, hey, say his name? But we say his name how you do it and how's it going? And his coworkers would know to do that, too. And that was enough to snap out of it.

Ann Marie: But we know with him is to try to not let the idle time. Even though you can't be controlled always because they're in real jobs. And you have to wait for the next thing to come to be finished before you can do it. But how could we minimize that? And it's so we tracked that they hired him. So after graduation, the idea is that if there's a job available, our partner companies keep our high school program there forever. And as a graduate, they get to be hired into the company if there's a job available. So he's been there for several years now. They love him. He's so fast, so productive. He's not there chatting with everybody. So he's actually really even more productive than other people. And so we just have to be cognizant of, you know, the joke to make sure that it's the right job. And there's not a lot of idle time in between.

Mary: Right. Right. And just like as a behavior analyst, I love that example. It's very similar to the kid who had so much defective manding, is like as a behavior analyst, if it's going to be like a 15 minute idle period, you know, because the machine broke or, you know, there's some issue, you know, you could teach him or teach one of the workers around him to be like, hey, Johnny, why don't you go listen to your music for fifteen minutes in the break room till we get this. So we get this back up and running and that sort of thing. I think it's great to have workers around you that would support you. And that's I think that's the goal for your company is to get the natural supports in place, to get them up and running with a job coach, with a one to one if needed, and then to be able to eventually fade that out, hopefully. So you do say on your Web site that there are real advantages to companies to consider hiring people on the spectrum. And what are those advantages?

Ann Marie: That's the perfect transition because I was itching to say something to answer your question, and that's what I was going to answer. So I'll start with him in that we did we're able to teach is the people who around him as a student, they work there and they get to work with the colleagues and then when they get hired. But we do try to do trainings. We did it in Spanish and English to the coworkers. But our vision of how we change\ society, how we change companies is that we educate. So part of what we do is the first thing we do is educate companies first, the leaders and managers and supervisors, and then the people who are the coworkers in the vicinity of working directly with the students. And what we find is that, you know, everybody goes to work. We don't all have love every bit of our jobs, depending on what their job might be. But if you can come to work and I'm not saying everybody loves to have an impact. But there's a lot of people that feel good about themselves when they can come to work and help somebody else, too.

Ann Marie: It doesn't have to be anybody disability, even being a regular mentor. But in this case, you can get you just by simply, you know, reaching out, saying hello, helping them with a task that they may be having trouble with and just being there to believe in them. And I think what helps, I think the big thing about what we feel is the big impacts for companies, I don't go in and say to charity, it's not charitable. It is that it becomes social impact for them. But I say it also impacts your own employees in a very positive way. They think they're a good employer. And it gives people the opportunity to be, you know, be a mentor on the job, feel good about yourself and participate, learn as well as they can get some really good workers.

Ann Marie: You know, I'm not saying everybody's that the perfect worker, but not every job is right for all of us. We don't all go in and I can't. I'm going to know I can't work for NASA. So everybody has whatever their skill or desire on the job. But the ideas that they can get a really good employee through the program. They get to know them for years before because they get in the program as students before they hire them. And they you know, if one of the owners is my chairman, my board, because he loved the program so much, he's an evangelist. And then he hired a CEO to take over for him when he left. That's CEO always said he was CEO, but he's the manager of the site. And he said, if you asked me when I started, I would have said no, probably no, I wouldn't want to program. He goes, but I came in and it was already there. You taught me. He goes, Now, I am the biggest evangelist. I think it is an amazing program personally. You get so much satisfaction from it. He said that they are accurate. You know, I say they're as bad as some are, but they're super accurate. Attention to detail.

Ann Marie: And he's just hired somebody came through is now is working in graphic design. So as well as the factory and distribution settings as well. So they are open to the type of jobs as well. But I think in changing him, he was everybody. Again, he was like me. But when he saw it, he interacted with it at a very personal level, not just hearing about it. He's the one high fiving. He's the one calling them into the production meetings. He's the one who's always looking for, you know, what's the next job for them? Could they do something else? You know, and that's the kind of I'm not saying that every manager at every level, at every company will end up feeling that way. But if they get to see it and participate in it, I think that's how we change one company at a time. One coworker at a time across the world. Maybe that's the way to do it. We are a society. We all go to work. If you can come home and tell somebody else that you know about a program and how much it impacted yourself, I think that's the way you change mindsets so that there's going to be more opportunity in more companies. As the years go by so that 700000 to one point one million, that number I told before that change from 500000 thousand. Hopefully over these years we are able to go out and show companies and let them see so that they will participate and want to. And see the benefit in so many different ways, the same way we do.

Mary: Yeah, I saw on your Web site you work with companies such as Rent the Runway, which I've heard about, Green Distribution and FM Expressions, which is one of the largest t shirt manufacturers in the country. You also have clients including Harley Davidson, the NFL, the Universal Music Group. So those are really big names. So what do you what advice do you have for somebody in Pennsylvania or in Idaho or, you know, how do you get something like this going? Is it one person at a time? Like I call up somebody with a connection and say, hey, can Lucas come in and volunteer there? Or like, how would you recommend or do you really recommend that schools partner with businesses or what? What? What's the best step when you have, if you have nothing going on in your local area?

Ann Marie: I would like to clarify. I wish I didn't have to because I wish you wouldn't have it, but so that Green Distribution is one of our partner companies and they are one of the largest screen printers on the East Coast. Their customers are Harley Davidson, Universal Music, those are their customers. So we do the work on those projects with them. But they're not directly my customers. But we do get to work on like concert artists from Lady Gaga to Rolling Stones, all the T-shirts, all the stuff that's manufactured that we help get those things out. But the idea is that the program, our program is growing right now. So we're trying to before COVID, we were planning to go to other states like New York and some other states to grow our program nationally. COVID and we'll talk about this later, helped us to go virtual.

Mary: So well I think we should talk about COVID now because we're you know, we don't have that much time to go. So let's talk about. Yeah. Like the t shirt industry. Kind of crumbled. I'm sure, Rent the Runway took a really big hit. You know, like how has COVID affected you? And you said you were planning to go online or expand anyway, but I guess that just pushed you forward in that way, right?

Ann Marie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the screen print thing, they're doing really well now that like I said, they just hired another one of our students now, but of course, during COVID it was harder, but now it's picking up. And so, like for us, we plan on having a I.T. platform anyway and we're rolling. We're gonna be rolling that out. We're in the launch phases for next year. By virtually in two days, we were able to get our virtual program up. And that allows us to be national, right from right from two days later.

Ann Marie: So it's really transitioned well. Most of the schools have right away. Almost every single one of them have went online with us. And so we were able to do, because in addition to the distribution and manufacturing and we had an office program where we talk graphic design, jobs and I.T. level, office administration, research, you know, things like that, building a Web site. So we cater to everybody along the spectrum from that. But when she went online, that sort of segment in what you could do, we still do our soft skills training in smaller groups, but they can be with somebody from anywhere in the United States that we would have a program with. So that's really great to open up them. And we went to start to we started to do teaching them all the office skills that you might need to know. Just being on a video conference is, you know, a lot of people but how to log on, how to be conversational, how to have etiquette and you raise your hand. You don't talk over other people.

Ann Marie: So it's just so simple skills are how you log on and how you do all of those things, plus the software that goes along with all those different things from create Adobe Creative Suite for graphic design from those who can to Internet research projects that are smaller to all different types of office work. And we do real work. So we are having virtual internships with companies. So we're starting to roll out where we get because we also have a screen printing company. So part of my social enterprises, we have our students, they work on graphic design, they work with our customers. Spectrum works goes out and sells. They get to do the design. Mock helped to create gone to distribution. All of those things, they get to learn the real projects because we sell and we make money for our. That's one of the revenue sources. They still get to do those things online for any promotional product. But we're also teaching them just how you interact in a group. What we found that, you know, you it is a spectrum and everybody's an individual.

Ann Marie: And I want everybody to, you know, to know that that's one of the things I really want corporations to know is everybody is an individual. Everybody has skills, strengths, weaknesses. We all do. We should focus on the strengths. And so what we do is teaching them how to interact on the computer and to interact with each other. What we're finding is that, you know, some of them that were very shy or didn't want to talk in the onsite program became a little more open because they were isolated, some in small apartments with not a lot of interaction with anybody else. They started to really want to interact with our job coaches in a much more meaningful and verbal way over the Internet program, virtual because they were so isolated and they told us what they really love it. I could read the quotes from our students with, like, how much I love the job coaches and be able to have that interaction. And also with other students.

Ann Marie: And as we grow the program virtually in other states, we're trying to work with Washington state, California. We have interest from Virginia and New York. We just signed up our first parent who wanted outside the program. And so we're going to try to work with businesses, corporations and companies all over the country too to get virtual work. But in the end, the idea your question was, is how do you start? We're hoping in this new project that we're doing that we can be able to help exactly what that is. We'll go into details. I will come back on place soon and be able to tell you about that. But it's a national, national and international idea and that we would be able to facilitate and help high schools, universities, support organizations, companies and individuals and caregivers to build this ecosystem that we believe that we kind of are doing already on a bigger scale. And to impart our knowledge and help others to do what we do. And that's kind of what our bigger, more impactful dream is. But it does take you know, you feel like you need it having a structure to a program and be able to go in and change mindsets at a company. You can. I heard one person at a time. Great.

Ann Marie: Like you have to start somewhere. And a lot of the time it's with a parent who has a child who knows somebody and or has a company themselves, but it doesn't have to be that way. And the more that we can chain the news out there and get people to write stories that are human, not about everybody's this or everybody's that, but about that there is an individual and everybody has strengths. And let's try to show people what they can do, not just what they can't do. I think it'll open up more opportunities for, well, you know, parents and schools and individuals with autism themselves to be themselves, to be able to bring themselves to work, whoever they are, and have people accept them and support them, because we believe that they need support.

Ann Marie: But we all need support at some point in our life. When you're just starting a job, you can never just jump into a job without having somebody support you. They just need different types of supports. And maybe for a little longer before you talked about, like breaking up tasks into these many tasks. And I love the way you said that, because on all levels we do that. Whether it's a really, like, higher structured job, like something with the Internet and I.T. to having it not ten steps that I would use, but 20 steps. But even on the manual labor tasks, if you really think about it, you break it down to decisions that we don't we take for granted. Right. But if you break them down and you teach them, then people can learn.

Mary: Right. Right. And I love that. And I think a good example. Lucas went to the food bank for the first time, you know. Well, he went five, four or five years ago when he was in high school. That was one of the things they assessed him and he did well back then. But he went for the first time since COVID and hadn't been there for five years. And the first day he was doing packing corn cans, you know. And the person with him was teaching him to, like, identify if there were any dents in the cans or the label was missing. He had to put it under and by the very next day, doing the same task, he was independent with identifying dents and labels missing. You know, so, like, to me, that was great because there is a decision that he learned basically in a few trials, which is so good.

Mary: So no matter where they are on the spectrum, I think we both have a similar message. There's something productive they can do, something that's going to make them happy and proud in whatever way they can. They can vocalize that. And providing structure, especially in this COVID time, is something that we all need to think about. And, you know, I said, well, what should we do in Pennsylvania, Idaho if we're starting from scratch? Nobody's really starting from scratch. The idea has required transition planning after 14. So people are in the throes of what you're providing anyway. It's just a we all need to learn from others. So I'm glad that you could come on today to share with us some of the things you are doing in the past decade since you got involved in the autism world. And I think the Web site is a great resource and it sounds like you have some exciting initiatives coming up and more virtual work and maybe more even international work.

Mary: And we really need to work together, I think, to empower parents and schools and adults on the spectrum to keep going. Like, if you've gotten, you know, not gotten interviews or lost your job or got fired or whatever, there is always it wasn't your fault. You just needed more support and more guidance and more positive interaction. So I think there's always a way for improvement and for moving forward. OK. So I like to end my podcast with the same question. Part of my podcast goals are for parents and professionals and people on the spectrum to be less stressed and lead happier lives. So do you have any stress reduction tips or self-care tips for us?

Ann Marie: I would say, so part of our soft skills class. I start with the individuals themselves, but part of our soft skills training that we've created, a big part of it is self-regulation, stress management, because we find that anxiety is an issue at work with some of our students, but all of us. And so, you know, I believe that stress reduction is for all of us as super important and for breathing. So in part of this course, I know it's something very simple, but I'm not going to go into the physiology of it. But there is a real reason why breathing and opening up the airways and taking a moment and I forget. I teach this and then I'm like, I get all crazy one day and I'm like, Oh.

Ann Marie: Breathe. And it really does help bringing in some air. It's taking a moment to calm yourself in those really stressful situations and thinking about, and for people with autism, it's like think about what are those coping skills? What coping skills you have ahead of time? So that when that when it happens that you have these fall back. Walk away, get a drink of water. I do that breathing. That's your first steps. And I think that could work for all of us in a work situation when you're feeling stressed. But in general, I feel like for caregivers, I would say support, support is really important. I don't like to ask for help sometimes. I think having supportive people around you who understand you is always good and having support groups, particularly who people we put the support group together because we're for our new project. We're trying to put together a stakeholder group and it was caregivers.

Ann Marie: And one of them said to me, he said to me is what helps him is actually having a connection with the caregivers that are where the child is on the same path. So if he went to college, then he was looking for somebody who had similar experiences, maybe not finding a job after college or if they were in high school or that age, like he felt that that was really helpful for him to have somebody who is in that same sort of, you know, sphere of what they're going through at the same time. So I would take his end as well. For me personally, stress management, is support.

Ann Marie: Nice music. Relaxing music. And, you know, that's always my stress reliever. I can't do that at work. So definitely the breathing and trying to have time for yourself. I think especially as a caregiver from all the caregivers that we've spoken to, it's a you know, it's a lot. You are an advocate for your child. And that takes a lot that takes a lot of energy. In order to be a good caregiver to anybody, you need to take care of you. So taking the time to make sure that you have what you need and the people around you that can support you. So that's what I say.

Mary: I think that's all great advice, especially in the post, well, in the middle still of the COVID epidemic. But even afterwards, I mean, breathing, finding support, finding people on a similar path. I know some of my really good friends in the autism world I met early on in my journey and now our kids are the same age and we support each other. So I think that's a great advice. OK. Well, Ann Marie, thank you so much for your time. I think we had a lot in common. I think we have very similar missions in terms of helping kids and adults on the spectrum be as safe, as independent and as happy as possible. So. On that note, I appreciate your time and I wish you all the best in your next endeavor.

Ann Marie: Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk to you and to your audience. I appreciate it. And your mission is amazing as well. So thank you for that.