Increasing the Employability of People with Autism

By Mrs Ania Hildrey, headteacher of Abbot’s Lea School – an outstanding school in Liverpool which provides the highest quality of specialist education for students aged 3-19 living with autism and a range of associated communication, interaction, social imagination, sensory and learning differences.

I have long been fascinated by the coincidence of socio-cultural change across the western world, together with the restructuring of the field of social sciences and revolution in policy towards those classified as having a ‘learning disability’. The former has seen the emergence of post-modern forms of society and social theory, while the latter witnessed the decarceration of people with learning disabilities into ‘the community’.

My particular interest lies in the educational aspects of that change with the main emphasis on educational systems and curricular opportunities created for people with complex learning needs, and how those enable or inhibit those deemed as having learning differences to attain adulthood status, particularly in the area of finding employment.

A brief timeline indicates just how far we have come:

During the mid-nineteenth century, any ‘difference’ was constructed within the ‘medical model’ of understanding disability. Its main emphasis was on the abnormality and the deficits of the individuals involved, with a particular concern for description and classification of different types and syndromes of ‘mental handicap’.

From the late nineteenth century, western societies sought to control lives of the ‘abnormal’ people by establishing isolated institutions. The concept of asylums aimed at continuous control of the lives of people accommodated there to ensure that ‘the disease did not spread’ and the productivity remained at an acceptable level.

People living in asylums worked in a variety of sheltered jobs, but never actually received financial remuneration for their efforts. That, together with the language used and social attitudes behind the practices are quite simply incomprehensible and horrid to a modern educator. Fortunately, we have travelled quite a distance from the mid-nineteenth century medical model of disability.

Since the 1960s, thinking about people – now classified as having learning difficulties – has moved to a more ‘social’ model, with its interest in decarceration, community care and inclusive, integrated education for all.

The 70s saw the emergence of the – now widely adopted – concepts of equal opportunities, social justice and inclusion. Normalisation has become the main discourse with an emphasis on the rights of people with learning disabilities to ‘an ordinary life’.

Key positive changes followed: in the 1980s with focus on children’s rights, the 1990s questioned the effectiveness of pure didactics whilst the new millennium started with the commitment to truly personalised learning.

All those changes have been significant and positive in the integration process, providing a chance for the improved quality of life for people with learning difficulties.

The discourse of employability, however, has not made the same transition. Today, the employability of people with learning difficulties and, from the point of view of my particular interest, those living with autism, remains at a very low level.

The empirical evidence from the various research projects conducted over the most recent decade continues to show that people who operate in a not neuro-typical way have highly restrictive opportunities for attaining adulthood status, especially in terms of the access to the open labour market.

A range of local success stories can be quoted and yet, the 2017 research by National Autistic Society states that just 32% of adults with autism are in some kind of paid employment (with 16% in full time paid work). This compares very worryingly to the non-disabled people’s reality where 80% of those are in work.

Considering that 70% of adults with autism stated that they would like to work, the barriers appear not to be linked to the individuals’ motivation.

The tension between the equal opportunities to work and the employment market’s readiness (or interest) in offering jobs to people with learning disabilities needs further exploration and, perhaps most of all, action.

With 60% of employers confirming that they did not know where to go for support or advice about employing people with autism and equal numbers concerned about ‘getting it wrong’, we may be dealing with a fear rather than unwillingness of action. Therefore, it appears to be an issue of skills-set, not a mind-set. Whilst this is, of course, concerning, I also see it as somewhat encouraging: one can teach skills but it is much harder to instil values…

I reflect on the current academic year and prepare for the new chapter of my work with a renewed sense of professional urgency to do the right thing by the young people with autism I work with. It is crucial that we all do some soul-searching and stay true to what we teach. It is imperative that we stretch the boundaries of what we think is possible today to secure better tomorrow.

It all begins with conviction and belief – raising aspirations and expectations of every person with autism who wants to work and encouraging them to work hard to overcome the obstacles. The barriers we face often stem from limiting beliefs, lack of support and underdeveloped social opportunities. All can be conquered, if approached wisely.

School curriculum should be conducive to raising aspirations, preparation for the world of work, job coaching and mentoring and responsible and measured risk-exposure to develop resilience and increased independence.

As part of Abbot’s Lea’s dedicated approach in promoting equal employment opportunities for people with disabilities, we are offering senior students the chance to gain experience within a real-life workplace.

A supported internship is a good example of that; it is a type of study programme specifically aimed at young people aged 16 to 24 who have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) and want to move into employment but need extra support to do so.

We have successfully partnered with facilities management company, Amey. Based at its Speke office, students will experience different areas of the company including the HR, procurement and call centre functions. The internships will begin in September and finish in July, the following year. Amey’s Sheffield site already successfully hosts supported internships and is looking to build on this in the Liverpool area.

We will deliver training to the staff at Amey, helping them to better understand autism so that they can tailor their support to the interns. In addition, an intern coach will support our students in the workplace and also hold numeracy and literacy sessions to them to help them achieve their academic qualifications.

Additionally, we have now created supported apprenticeship and I sincerely hope that we will recruit into those from within the school’s leavers. A proper, paid on-the-job training is exactly what some of our students need in order to make transition into independent adulthood.

Those remaining at the school will be supported and guided in their career aspirations and work readiness by a specialist job coach.

Overall, we must continue to aim high; higher than ever before. It is only through our own professional conviction, relentless leadership of positive change and the courage to challenge low aspirations that we can successfully promote employment of all.

With the supported employment programmes, traineeships, apprenticeships, job coaching, job carving, work trials, flexible continuous professional development, embracing technology, non-judgmental mentoring and deeply personalised performance management – it really can be done! Deeds not words. No excuses.

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