Students with autism often leave school with strengths that can benefit all sorts of businesses, such as a good eye for detail and reliability. Yet, just 15 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time paid employment, often due to a lack of support and awareness of autism among employers, as well as insufficient training and opportunities for people with the condition.
The National Autistic Society (NAS) is trying to address this problem, by working with businesses through its employment training and consultancy service and giving children and young people in its schools the best education possible, through schemes like Autisan Creative Enterprises.
Autisan is a joint initiative set up in 2013 as a sustainable enterprise between the NAS Robert Ogden School in South Yorkshire and NAS Adult Services in the North of England.
It developed from the school’s café, Storm in a Tea Cup, where the students cook and serve food to fellow students and staff. The first Autisan project was fudge-making – a student at the school made fudge which was then shipped to NAS Adult Services for adults we support to cut, pack and sell via various events and exhibitions around the UK.
Some of the fudge was also cut and packed at the school and sold to parents and visitors. Our initial aim was to provide life-skills, work experience and qualifications to students with autism and, in the long-term, to develop employment opportunities.
From this starting point, Autisan has gone from strength to strength over the past two years, allowing it to expand and win a prestigious accolade at the Autism Professionals Awards earlier this year.
However, we are most proud of the way we have boosted the confidence and opportunities of the students and adults we support. We have also employed Connor Matthews (pictured below), a former student of the Robert Ogden School – we hope he’ll be the first of many employees.
More than one in 100 people have autism, including an estimated 150,000 school children in the UK. Autism affects how a person communicates with and relates to others, as well as how they make sense of the world around them.
It is a spectrum condition which manifests differently in each individual, meaning that some children are able to excel in mainstream school while others require extensive support in specialist settings – a “one-size-fits-all” approach to education simply won’t work.
This is why the education and care that the eight NAS schools offer, including schemes like Autisan, is tailored to the unique needs of each student, drawing on the charity’s 50 years’ experience educating children with autism.
NAS schools follow a modified national curriculum which gives us more flexibility to develop students’ communication and independent living skills, often via projects like Autisan, while also enabling them to gain appropriate nationally recognised qualifications – again, it all depends on the individual.
We use a range of established autism-specific interventions, including TEACCH and SCERTS, under the framework of the NAS SPELL philosophy, which stands for: structure, positivity, empathy, low arousal and links (to other interventions and the community).
Our schools employ speech and language therapists and psychologists, who play an integral role in helping to ensure that each child progresses to the best of their ability. We also work with each child’s parents, to continually assess all areas of their development and plan for their future.
Autisan has proved to be an innovative way to develop the social skills of the children and adults we support and to give individual work and money-handling experience. It also brought in income allowing us to expand the scheme and the range of products we make.
We try to base our products on the interests of the individual and their learning needs. For example, we had a student who had a fascination for shredding paper and found this therapeutic. We tried to utilise this interest by getting him to make firebricks, which we now sell as part of our Autisan range.
Other students are now involved in the process too, which helps teach environmental awareness as we are recycling paper. Other products made by the school include cards, ceramic plant pots, paperweights, soaps, bird boxes and cards. The adults we support make and sell luxury soaps, t-shirts and jams and chutneys, made from the fruit from orchards at Hoylands House, an NAS residential service in Barnsley.
We are about to open our first café and shop in Whalley Abbey, Lancashire, which will be called Café Autisan. This will give us a base to provide even more training and employment opportunities to people with autism.
The structure of Autisan is carefully designed to meet the unique needs of the people we support, whether they are looking to become more independent or go onto further study or employment. It is therefore not just about training and work experience, equally important is how it develops their confidence, self-esteem, and communication by engaging them with a more vocational style of learning, getting them to work in a team and making them feel part of a community, and a worthwhile project.
Alongside gaining transferable life-skills, the scheme also gives the people we support training and work experience in a wide range of areas including catering and hospitality, retail, merchandising, administration, business and enterprise, health and safety, IT, horticulture and creative arts and crafts.
The project has also helped us challenge misconceptions about what people with autism can achieve; we have shown that they can excel in the workplace, if they are given the right opportunities, understanding and support.
Autism is a complex condition so there are still a number of challenges, not least because of the high levels of anxiety many people experience when they are faced with new or unexpected situations, as well as their sensory sensitivities – most people with autism are over or under-sensitive to light, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
We address these issues by carefully selecting which students or adults would benefit from being involved in a scheme like Autisan and tailoring each individual’s role to their own needs and strengths. We also ensure that they receive consistent support and frequent person-centred meeting with teachers and support workers who have a deep knowledge of autism.
A structured and predictable working environment is essential, so each individual knows exactly what they’re doing and what to expect on any given day. For instance, we prepare the adults we support for any trips to conferences where they showcase and sell Autisan products, by familiarising them with where they’re going, how they’re getting there, who they’re likely to meet and ultimately what to expect. This can be through pictures, or written or spoken descriptions, depending on their needs.
The unique strength of Autisan is its flexible and self-sustaining business model which allows us to continually reinvest the proceeds so it keeps growing. This allows us to offer more and more students and adults with autism the opportunity to become more independent and increase their employment prospects.
It is a model that could easily be transferred to other schools, albeit on a smaller scale, akin to how Autisan first started, and hopefully have a similarly transformative effect on students with autism.
What’s most important is that the teachers running the scheme have a good understanding of autism and know how to support students wishing to be involved. There’s lots of information about education strategies and approaches on the NAS website and via our teachers campaign My World, where school staff can sign up for free to access the UK’s biggest autism-specific education resource.
Autism can have a profound effect on students but we’ve seen the difference that the right understanding and support can make.
Further informationFor more details on the charity’s work, visit www.autism.org.uk. For more on My World, go to www.autism.org.uk/myworld
Kenny Bryce is area manager for the North of England at the National Autistic Society, while Lorraine Dormand is acting principal at Robert Ogden School.