How One Senior Is Helping Young Adults with Autism Find Jobs

“After I retired from education, I did some volunteer work for a while. I have a granddaughter with a disability, and when that happened my interests then changed. So I became a job coach for those with autism at a high school, and then began working full time at Spectrum Works.”

Spectrum Works helps bridge the gap between individuals with autism and employers like Rent the Runway, Green Distribution and F&M Expressions. Ficon works as a program manager at Spectrum Works, and spends much of her day out and about on the factory floor and in classrooms, helping trainees to learn a variety of job skills.

“Our job readiness programs teach both hard and soft skills. The Spectrum Works office is located inside of a partner company, where our young adults get experience in the factory. They work in shipping, tagging and ticketing, and they utilize computer skills doing design work.”

In her many years as an educator, Ficon has seen attitudes toward those with disabilities change significantly.

“In my younger days, anyone who had a child that was different, they didn’t talk about them, they shielded them. They weren’t integrated, and that’s come a long way today. People now are more accepting. It’s diagnosed earlier and more resources are there for them today — except the employment. That’s very hard.”

It’s this barrier to employment that Ficon and the team at Spectrum Works are working to break down. And Ficon says the program’s trainees are constantly breaking the norm of what people typically believe those with autism are capable of. For example, the young adults there not only work manual labor jobs, but many of them also excel at computer-based work.

One of Ficon’s favorite success stories from Spectrum Works is that of a young man named Dennis, who excelled in creative design work and illustration. Dennis was later hired by PBS to act as a consultant for Sesame Street, which introduced a new character with autism to the show in 2014.

Ficon herself is no stranger to breaking the norm. Now in her eighties, she is far from retired, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

“The team at Spectrum Works is remarkable. We never talked about my age. I’m one of the team to them. They never treat me like I’m their grandmother. I’m grateful for that.”

In fact, Ficon says the wide range of ages she interacts with at work is one of her favorite parts of the job — and it’s something too many seniors miss out on in their golden years. 

“People in retirement may not always associate with young people, because they think there’s nothing in common. But there can be. You figure out the common denominator and get out of the box, and you can learn a lot from each other. They teach me all the time, and I hope I teach them.”

According to Ficon, one way that older adults can stay active and engaged in their senior years is by volunteering.

“You can volunteer through the church or through homeless centers. Or if you had a career, continue to do that. For example, if you were a teacher, teach at an after school program at the grammar school level.”

As for staying active into her senior years, Ficon says helping others is what has kept her going well into her eighties.

“I worked all my life, and I guess I don’t know anything different. I like to be with people, and I like to be an asset. I like to help wherever I can.”

“I love my job. That’s all I can tell you.”

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