Heather Burgess works out of Northeast Arc’s Center for Linking Lives at the Liberty Tree Mall in Danvers, Massachusetts. As Lead Adult Autism Specialist, Heather provides services for individuals 18 and older who have autism and no intellectual disabilities. Through the Adult Autism Support Center, she holds recreational events that help build social skills and friendships, provides training opportunities that hone skills of daily living, manages the flex funding that some individuals with autism receive from the state, and offers assistance to navigate critical resources and referrals.
Heather joined Northeast Arc in 2018 and was part of the team that developed the Adult Autism Support Center, which launched in 2020. Recently she stepped into the newly created role of Lead Adult Autism Specialist. In addition to supporting other adult autism specialists on her team, she continues to work with clients one on one.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job is watching the attendees at our social events make friends and then develop deeper relationships with those friends outside of our events,” Heather says. Many attendees at social gatherings and training programs report that in addition to being more adept at striking up conversations and friendships, they’re now able to form longer-lasting relationships.
Gaining confidence with social skills helps these adults with autism flourish. In one instance, an individual who struggled with social anxiety has progressed to the point where she’s able to cofacilitate a monthly social event. “She is now able to run that group, create conversations within the group, and be a mentor for folks who join in. And she told me she feels more confident since she’s been more involved,” Heather says. That confidence has helped the woman advocate for herself in a variety of ways. For example, after confiding that she’d love to join a club focused on her favorite pastime, the woman was able to work with Heather to bring her vision to life at the Center – launching a club that allows her and others with a similar passion to pursue their interest.
“We are very collaborative with those we serve, and make sure everything we do comes from the voice of people with autism,” Heather says. She runs the Center’s advisory council, consisting of adults with autism, which helps ensure the Center’s services align with the needs of the local autism community. “The advisory council meets once a month and helps us make all of our decisions at the Center,” she says.
Helping the individuals she serves access the resources they need to grow and thrive is an ongoing challenge. “For the specific population we serve, there are very limited resources available, so we have to be very creative to connect them with appropriate programming and financial assistance,” Heather says. “Some receive an allocation from the state that we manage, essentially acting as their accountants. Some don’t and are in need of other assistance, so we connect them with the kind of help they need, such as food stamps or financial aid for college,” she says. Most qualify for social security benefits, so Heather and others at the Center assist them with the application process to ensure they get that income.
“The professionals at Northeast Arc, especially within the Family Services division, are fun, open-minded, and creative people who really care about those we serve,” Heather says. One indication this is true: Individuals attending the Center’s social events often don’t realize the staff is working. “They see us as equals having fun with them, not as people who are there just to supervise,” Heather says. “That’s a very cool thing about our work here.”