Working together to assist job seekers with autism – Autism in Practice – July 2014

As the focal point of my final feature for the July 2014 issue of Autism in Practice, an e-newsletter developed by The National Autistic Society for professionals who work to support people with autism in Great Britain, I had the opportunity to explore the relationship between The National Autistic Society and Tate in assisting people with autism in employment. As this is an area I’m passionate about from personal experience, it was a pleasure to find out how employees with autism are now being successfully integrated into the workplace:

Only 15% of all people with autism in Great Britain are currently in full-time employment.

The National Autistic Society offer specialist training and consultancy services to employers to help recruiters and managers to become autism confident. Eleanor Martin, Manager of The National Autistic Society’s Employment Training Service, says: “For many people with autism, all they need is a combination of the right support and the opportunity to make their ambitions a reality.”

Jack has Asperger’s syndrome. He is a trainee within the Collection Care department at Tate. He is part of a team that protect Tate’s catalogue of artwork.

Nikki Dinan, Tate’s Training Programme Manager, runs Tate’s Skills for the Future programme that is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

“In our Paintings and Frames department, we were looking for a trainee to carry out the role of a Paintings and Frames Technician. One of the requirements of the role was to have a carpentry qualification. We received applications from some students, including Jack, from The Buildings Craft College who specialise in wood and stone masonry”, says Nikki.

“We recognised that some of the young people coming to interviews may be extremely nervous, especially coming into a large organisation like Tate, and that this could be their first interview. We allowed for this and scored applicants on their transferrable skills and the benefit to them as an individual.

“If we were to have just assessed the applicants on their written and verbal communication skills, this would have been a clear barrier for Jack.”

How the NAS and Tate have worked together
The NAS conducted a workplace assessment and produced a report outlining specific strategies and reasonable adjustments that would be useful for Jack to enable him to succeed in his role and complete his traineeship.

Following this, the NAS delivered an autism awareness session for Jack’s colleagues. The session enabled Jack’s team to build an understanding of autism and how to work with Jack effectively.

Jack attended a two-day work skills training course at the NAS for employees with autism, including Asperger’s syndrome, covering topics including organisation, communication and assertiveness.

Nikki, Jack and Jack’s supervisor receive ongoing support from an NAS workplace support consultant.

Nikki says: “The involvement from the NAS at a crucial stage has been fundamental for Tate. My personal knowledge of autism was limited before coming to this role.

“Having a trainee with Asperger’s has enabled us to learn a huge amount about autism and what this means for an individual. Having the opportunity to work with somebody with autism has been of huge benefit.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to be involved in the development of an individual who on the very first day found it extremely difficult to speak to anyone. Jack now communicates with colleagues and other trainees with confidence.”

Nikki used Access to Work funding to provide the workplace assessment, training and ongoing mentoring for Jack.

Nikki believes there should be a change in employers’ attitudes towards autism.

She says: “I think there is a lack of understanding around autism and much work is needed to raise awareness of the benefits of employing someone with autism as well as the benefits to the individual. It is important for people to understand that autism affects people in many different ways.”

Nikki believes giving a young person with autism a chance to become employed can create a better future for both the employer and the employee:

“It is essential young people with autism have opportunities to fulfil their ambitions and to be a member of an organisation who is truly valued for their skills and abilities. If we can provide these opportunities at the start of a person’s career, then it is more likely people with autism will continue to progress and remain in employment.”

Autism in Pink EU project concludes with free web resources – Autism in Practice – July 2014

In the second of three features I put together as a freelance writer for Autism in Practice, an e-newsletter developed by The National Autistic Society for professionals who work to support people with autism in Great Britain, I had the chance to find out more about Autism in Pink, an EU-funded project that helped to bring women with autism together from Great Britain, Lithuania, Portugal and Spain. The project aimed to show how autism can present differently in the female form, rather than the male form. This has resulted in issues that can prevent women from receiving the autism diagnosis they seek. For Autism in Practice, I had the pleasure of speaking to Lisa Chu, a participant in the project who lives with autism:

Autism in Pink was a project for women with autism funded by the EU and supported by The National Autistic Society in Great Britain, Lithuania’s Edukaciniai Projektai, Portugal’s Federacao Portuguesa de Autismo and Spain’s Autismo Burgos.

The project embraced the phrase “nothing about us, without us”, gathering a group of women with autism in each country to attend workshops, giving them a unique opportunity to contribute to the materials produced by the project, meet influencers and politicians as well as attending international events to meet the groups from other countries. By taking part in the project’s research to produce materials to increase awareness and help others, many of the women volunteers themselves gained more personal insight, increased their confidence and overcame personal challenges.

Dr Wendy Lawson, a psychologist who is also on the autistic spectrum, said in May 2014 on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour: “There is more awareness. People are realising autism is not a male disposition. I believe it occurs almost equally in girls, as well as boys.”

With approximately 700,000 people living with autism in Great Britain, four times as many men are diagnosed as women. Sylvia Kenyon, a senior researcher from The National Autistic Society, believes this is a pan-European issue and that in each of the countries represented by Autism in Pink, “autism still seems to be thought of as a predominantly male phenomenon”.

In an attempt to bring women with autism together, the Autism in Pink project researched the lives of women with autism in the four countries involved. It increased awareness around women with autism and looked at ways to improve knowledge for people who support and work with women with autism.

The project concluded with a one-day conference in Lisbon, Portugal in May 2014 where women with autism could meet to share their unique experiences. The conference featured talks from Dr Judith Gould and Robyn Steward, a woman with autism and an autism speaker, as well as a musical performance from the APPDA Banda, a Portuguese band including musicians who live with autism.

A personal perspective
Lisa Chu, one of the research participants, remembers the day fondly:

“The participants who chose to speak were all amazing. They came across as very professional and confident. It was a fantastic event and a great way of raising awareness of the issues faced by women with autism, with insights from the women themselves.”

By participating in Autism in Pink, Lisa says: “It meant I could consider carefully the impact autism has had on a range of areas in my life. It has been immensely useful in coming to terms with my diagnosis and identity as a woman with autism. It has helped me to realise how much autism has affected me throughout my life.”

Lisa has lived with low self-esteem and severe depression for 20 years. She has struggled to socialise and organise her life on a daily basis. She has struggled to find an autism diagnosis because she believes “women tend to ‘mask’ or cover up their symptoms by mimicking or compensating in other ways”.

She says: “The current methods used to diagnose autism are skewed towards the male presentation so women with autism are often missed, which has led to lower rates of diagnosis in women.”

How has Autism in Pink helped women with autism
As Sylvia explains, difficulties common in all of the countries involved in Autism in Pink for women include:

“So-called ‘high-functioning’ women struggle to have their difficulties recognised. They appear so able people find it very difficult to believe they have the difficulties they actually do have.

“Women are able to make it look as if their autism affects them much less than it actually does. This has many implications on their mental and physical health and relationships, and the way other people in all areas of their lives judge them.

“Society’s tendency to stereotype can be problematic for women with autism because they do not fit neatly into either the stereotype of women, or the stereotype of a person with autism.”

Sylvia believes Autism in Pink was a supported idea as “the project was in line with EU values and the idea everyone is entitled to an equal quality of life”.

“I think the funding was awarded because women with disabilities are known to be particularly vulnerable, and there are very few projects that investigate women with autism specifically.”

Though the Autism in Pink project has formally ended, free resources for both professionals and women with autism are available on the Autism in Pink website. These include Breaking the Silence, an e-book, and The Autism in Pink Documentary. Each resource offers insights from women involved in the project.

For more information about the project, visit Autism in Pink’s website.


Asperger’s syndrome and mental health: A personal perspective – Autism in Practice – July 2014

As a freelance writer, I currently put features together for Autism in Practice, an e-newsletter developed by The National Autistic Society for professionals who work to support people with autism in Great Britain. In working on the July 2014 issue of Autism in Practice, I had the pleasure of meeting Callum McCrosson, a man with autism who has dealt with mental health issues along a journey that has resulted in him becoming employed by The National Autistic Society. His story inspired me as I live with depression and anxiety myself. Please read my feature on Callum’s story:

Callum McCrosson, 26, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was 23. He has also experienced life with a mental health issue as a teenager that left him isolated.

Ten years after he first experienced panic attacks that manifested as stomach cramps and muscular contractions, he developed a mental health issue he now feels was “mostly caused by being autistic and not being aware of it.”

Having received a diagnosis, Callum says he has “changed almost entirely” and that he is much happier with “a network of friends that I want and not that I thought I should have.”

The National Autistic Society revealed in You Need To Know, a 2010 study that focussed on the lives of children in Great Britain who have autism as well as mental health issues, 71% of all children with autism also have one mental health issue at least and 42% have multiple issues.

Callum shared his experiences of living with autism and mental health issues at the recent NAS Autism and mental health conference, held in Manchester on Tuesday 17th June 2014.

Callum’s experience
On dealing with teenage desires as a 13-year-old, Callum says: “I was of the age where I desired attention from girls and male friends, all for the first time. I had no idea how to do it and my attempts must have come across clumsily. As a result I was made fun of, or ignored.

“I withdrew more and more until I was missing more than half the school year.

“I got diagnosed with depression at 15 and started medication and therapy. I was repeatedly told it was simple to snap out of it, to exercise or to just make friends! That didn’t work. I settled into a pattern of ups and downs. Having a friend or two and then having none for extended periods of time.”

While he struggled to find friends who he could share his situation with, Callum also struggled to find employment.

Working with Prospects Scotland, an NAS service that looks to help people with autism to develop employability skills, changed his outlook on life and built confidence.

After being diagnosed with autism by a new psychiatrist who saw traits of autism as she was also a specialist who worked with children on the spectrum, Callum became comfortable with himself. He can now embrace the present, while making sense of his past.

He says: “I was supported into accepting that it is absolutely okay to be me.

“I have a network of people close to me who are fully aware of my issues. This has allowed me to be a lot happier.

“One of the big things that happened after I got diagnosed was I could eventually relax. I could stop beating myself up about embarrassing incidents that happened when I was a teenager as a lot of them were fairly typical behaviours for someone on the spectrum.

“It’s hard to describe how I felt when I was really depressed outside of using clichéd terms of hopeless, lost and frustrated. There was no motivation to do anything and my life became very short term. I wasn’t making plans for further away than the next day. No thoughts about a career, marriage or kids.”

Embracing mindfulness
Lynne Moxon, a consultant psychologist from Education and Services for People with Autism Limited (ESPA), also spoke at the conference to share ways of how people who live with autism and mental health issues can create positive wellbeing with ease.

Lynne believes: “If anxiety in autism is often about difficulties and challenges with coping with uncertainty, novelty and change, then resilience, social understanding and emotional regulation could be improved by enabling people with autism to cope with and enjoy change.”

As a consultant psychologist who spoke in Manchester about developing and applying a positive mind set that can create a positive sense of wellbeing in anybody who lives with a mental health issue, Lynne believes a new way of thinking can make a big difference.

Two tips from Lynne can particularly help in mindfulness training. By applying them, stress levels can be reduced:

“Fill a sink or basin with warm water and washing up liquid. As you are doing this, focus on the activity. We might do this by noticing the temperature of the water and how it feels on your skin. The sound of the water as we move our hands through the water. The shape, colour and movement of the bubbles in our hands.

“Take a walk in the park. We might do this by noticing the wind on your cheeks, the sun warming your skin, the roughness of the bark on the trees. As you are walking along, describe what else you can feel, smell, see and hear.”

Autism and mental health issues are linked but as Callum’s story shows, a positive life can come from a negative experience. Lynne’s tips offer a way to take small steps in slowly building a better future.

How important is work in your life balance?

I was shocked to read about the death of Martin Hadfield, a 20-year-old who decided to commit suicide after becoming yet another adult in Great Britain that had to visit Jobcentre Plus, ran by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), to look for work.

I’ve put together that opening paragraph in a way that may influence your thinking a little bit. One thought towards Martin’s story may be that he wanted to take his own life rather than join 2.3 million people in Great Britain who are currently unemployed, but another thought may be that he just wanted a job.

I’m hoping, as a freelance public speaker and writer who is currently looking for permanent employment, you’ll think of the second thought as Martin’s reasoning. His stepfather, 47-year-old Peter O’Gorman, said in an article on the Mirror’s website this week: “He isn’t like some people his age, happy on the dole watching Jeremy Kyle day after day, he would have taken anything that was offered and would have been great at it.” My heart goes out to Martin. Read more of this post

Exploring the link between autism and gastrointestinal issues – Autism in Practice – April 2014

Having worked for The National Autistic Society since February 2014 as a freelance features editor on Autism in Practice, an e-newsletter that is produced by the charity for professionals who work with people with autism in Great Britain, I finally have a chance to share one of the features with you that I’ve put together for the April 2014 issue. This is something I’ve been excited about for a while!

You can find the four features I’ve put together in total on the society’s Network Autism portal. If you are a professional, you can become a member of Network Autism and connect with likeminded professionals. If you’re not, I wanted to share a feature with you all here that was written on a possible link between autism and gastrointestinal issues. There is growing awareness of a potential link and through the examples I’ve used in the feature, I hope I show this. Please let me know what you think. Read more of this post

Finding a few more puzzle pieces!

I’ve had an epiphany. This tends to happen every now and then because even though I know I have autism, I don’t always recognise the way it affects me.

On Tuesday 1st April 2014, Horizon: Living with Autism was broadcast on BBC Two. Showing a window on a magnificent world full of lateral thinking and brutal honesty, the documentary focussed on three case studies who have found ways of getting through life while they’ve lived with autism. There was a feeling of complete positivity for me that shone a bright and beautiful light on the autistic mind.

Particularly, the relationship between Kathy Lette and her son, Julius, made me smile. I’ve had a chance to write about Julius before, but I have never seen him. During the documentary, he was asked to define autism but he struggled to do so. This made me think and over the days that have passed since, I’ve reached a little eureka! moment! Read more of this post

The Prince’s Trust – An employer who is listening

Along my journey of trying to show employers how autistic people can become autistic employees who are in some ways possibly more painfully honest and hard-working than existing employees (perhaps!), I’ve had a stop/start experience.

With Autistic Achievers in 2013, I had the chance to speak to a number of HR professionals from a number of different employers. There were trips to London to be had and for one meeting particularly, a very swanky day where I felt like a big shot in Canary Wharf, but no ideas or thoughts were followed up. No matter how promising meetings seemed, they didn’t produce anything.

It felt like autism was a stigma too far for business. Like the thought of entertaining an autistic employee was a story that Enid Blyton couldn’t concoct, but I’ve had an epiphany in the last few days from an employer who got me started on my journey last year. Read more of this post