Paul Voss is a maintenance worker at the Fort Lee Senior Center. Despite his above-average intelligence and abilities, the 34-year-old has limited job options because he has Asperger Syndrome. This neurobiological disorder on the autism spectrum seriously impairs the ability to interpret social cues such as body language and conversational nuances.
Interviewing for a job, let alone keeping one, is difficult for someone with Asperger’s.
It is for people like Voss that Jewish Family Service of Bergen County is introducing a 16-week employment counseling program beginning Jan. 5. It will offer social-skills training, personalized career assessments, job-search coaching and workshops, rÃ©sumÃ© preparation, interview practice, job training referrals, and job placement for young adults with Asperger’s.
Voss and his mother, Joan – Assemblywoman for the 38th District – were members of the JFS advisory board that developed the upcoming program. Having experienced severe social struggles throughout his school and work history, Voss is certain that the training will help him on the job.
“I want to know the difference between who is being good to me and who is being mean to me,” Voss related in a recent telephone interview. “Because I can’t tell the difference, I have always been the victim of deception.”
Lisa Fedder, JFS executive director, said that people with Asperger Syndrome are often unemployed or significantly underemployed for their skill levels.
“Some of the challenges they bring are real, but so are their strengths: focus, ability to work undisturbed under pressure, honesty, loyalty, and attention to detail,” Fedder said.
Placement at North Jersey companies will be a large part of the program. “A lot of big employers have requirements for hiring people with disabilities and we can work with them, and encourage them to hire our people and educate them about the unique strengths and skills the Asperger’s employee will contribute to their workplace,” Fedder said.
Marlena Lechner, career development specialist with the agency’s Job Search Network, realized the need for such a program when she began detecting “a pattern of shaky work histories” in some of her clients.
“It was clear that neither they nor their employers knew they had Asperger Syndrome,” said Lechner. “But there were telltale signs in their behavior, and I referred them for diagnosis. Once you know what you’re up against, it becomes easier to work together on issues such as lack of eye contact and social skills.”
Lechner said the 12-week program will include “acting-like” coaching to prepare participants to get and keep jobs. “By the time we finish, their interviewing skills will be very polished and they will have more self-confidence,” she said. “We will support them every which way, so we’re confident this first-of-a-kind program will make a huge difference in their lives and in their parents’ lives.”
The program, initially to accommodate 10 people from ages 21 to 35, will include support groups for the participants and their parents, a weekly drop-in computer lab, and one year of post-job placement support.
New Jersey has the nation’s highest reported rates of autism – one out of every 94 children, compared to the national rate of one out of 150 children. It is estimated that at least two out of every 10,000 children have Asperger’s, which is three to four times more prevalent in boys than girls.
Joan Voss, co-sponsor of seven bills on autism services that were passed by the Assembly in May, expressed enthusiasm about the JFS program’s potential.
“We would like to help those with good skills to be able to become gainfully employed in something they enjoy,” she said.
Her son probably will remain a borough maintenance employee, a position he has held since 1999 that gives him job security and benefits. Paul Voss said he hopes to use the skills he learns in the program to further his dream of becoming a performer. He recently enjoyed a short stint with Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Garage Theatre Group.
“I had a great time and met a lot of great people,” said Voss, who said he often feels like “a scared little puppy” but aims to feel more like “a noble wolf” through increased self-confidence.
“On stage or screen you can escape from being yourself,” he said of his affinity for acting. “In real life, not everything is scripted, and you don’t know what to expect. In a fictional world, everything is scripted and you know what to expect.”
The JFS program will take place at the agency’s offices at 1485 Teaneck Road in Teaneck. It costs $5,000, which includes a year of support services; limited scholarships are available. For more information, call (201) 837-9090.