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Autism and employment, a Dad's persective: interview with Simon Macaulay of Sky Autism Support

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting to Simon Macaulay, dad to Jamie (in his 20s) who is autistic. Simon has been hugely proactive, setting up the parent support group, Sky Autism Support, in Malvern ten years ago, which has flourished and now also supports young adults with social groups. He has also had experience more recently of supporting his son into full-time employment. He told me how he went about helping Jamie to find and keep a job. He also shared some advice from Yvonne Charrot, a trained teacher who specialises in autism (and who also works with Sky Autism Support) on supporting young autistic adults to find work.

Amy: Can you tell me what motivated you to set about helping Jamie to find a job?

Simon: We have all heard the statistic that only around 10-15% of autistic adults are in work.

My fear was that Jamie would (after we are long gone) be spending his days in some day care centre - overweight bored and feeling useless and totally isolated. I was determined that he should find a job.

Amy: So how did you get started?

Simon: We were lucky enough to know the personnel manager of a local tech company. They employ loads of PHD students in Physics and Maths and have always raised money for autism charities. The company offered James 2 half days of work experience every week alongside his schooling in the 6th form. He was working in a shop floor role.

Amy: Great, so was the work experience a success?

Simon: Yes, it was. Normally Jamie really struggles with following instructions - he just cannot retain the information. He really struggles with basic tasks such as making a cup of tea (where to put the tea bag etc). But this work was successful for two reasons:

- Firstly, it was a technical company making technical measuring systems. There were extremely detailed instructions, which James could follow to the letter, and didn’t get bored as others might. They wanted the machine made exactly the same every time and he was fine with this.

- Secondly the commitment of the management team - the director read a book on autism before Jamie started, as he knew nothing about it. He has since said to a friend that Jamie's success with them is one of his proudest achievements in his career.

Amy: What was the next step after the work experience?

Simon: After about a year the company offered James the chance to start a full-time apprenticeship. We jumped at the chance. However, the college was not very well set up for his needs and after 6 weeks an exasperated teacher rang the company to say that James could not cope - and would have to leave the course. The manager Chris - a lovely guy- rang me and suggested I go in to college and find out what the issue was. Basically, on this course they were doing simple metal bashing but had no computers - so no Standard Operating Procedures for him to follow – and Jamie could not cope. I talked it through with the course director and he arranged for a friend of his, who was recently retired, to support Jamie on a voluntary basis through this course and he eventually passed! That support was incredibly kind and vital - Jamie could easily have ended up on the scrap heap at that moment - and I don’t think he would have had the confidence to give it another go.

Amy: So, what happened next?

Simon: Jamie eventually completed his apprenticeship and has now worked at this company 30 hours a week for 5 years. He is not the best employee but not the worst either - and his attendance record is exemplary. The company invite us to sit down with his manager once a year to talk through any issues – which is a great idea. They have subsequently taken on another autistic employee.

James doesn’t love the work itself - it can be repetitive - but he loves the structure of work. He knows exactly how each day will go. He has gained so much self-esteem and has now passed his driving licence (at the 6th attempt) so he has built more independence. We hugely appreciate the kindness and generosity of this company for giving Jamie this chance - in my view it has changed his life.

Advice from Yvonne Charrot on supporting autistic young people into employment:

"I am involved with the training and recruitment of people with neurodiversity, including autism. Some of the things I have observed include:

Many young people with autism have struggled a lot through their experience with education. Even when they are very bright and managed to get as far as graduating with a degree it has often come at a cost. I do not say this to be negative or to denigrate their success but to advise against focusing on education at the exclusion of other very important social and confidence building skills.

It is competitive enough for young people entering the workplace without the addition of other issues. When it comes to choosing a university course it is worth considering how suited the intended career is to your child’s personality. This needs to be balanced against ensuring they are following their strengths and doing what they enjoy. Everybody is happiest working in a job that plays to their strengths so it is worth finding out what these are. Fortunately, some companies have begun to realise that they are missing out on pools of talent and are trying to actively recruit neuro diverse individuals, especially industries such as IT, so it is worth looking out for this.

There are a lot of potentially confusing social rules in the workplace so it is a good idea to develop some workplace skills alongside technical and academic ones. Volunteering roles or work placements can help with this.

When you do secure a position, it is important to remember that employers should make reasonable adjustments in order for you to do your job comfortably. You may not know what it is that you need (sensory such as lighting or noise cancelling headphones or perhaps adjusted hours or some mentoring sessions). This is where an Access to Work assessment it very helpful and is as simple as logging on to the government website and applying. Somebody will come in and help you to work out what you need and then most or all of the support is funded by the government (depending on the size of the company)".

Some useful resources:

Sky Autism Support:

NAS guidance for employers

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