Apprenticeships for autistic adults

Allison Hope-West is Autism Director at the Priory Group. Here she gives an overview of the lack of apprenticeships for autistic adults, what can be done to support them and a case study of a successful placement. 

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Author: Allison Hope-West

Apprenticeships for autistic adults

There is a woeful inadequacy of apprenticeships, internships and jobs for adults with autism which is holding back many talented people from fulfilling satisfying roles in society and achieving their true potential in the workplace.  Major hurdles appear to be a lack of understanding and advice and training amongst employers about autistic spectrum disorders and a lack of specialist employment services.

With the correct support, those with autism can offer a unique skill set to employers and become socially and economically independent. At present only 15% of adults with autism are in full time paid employment even though the majority of the 300,000 working age adults with autism in the UK want to work.

There is a raft of research that identifies specific skills evident in many adults with autism which can make them extremely valuable employees. This includes: 

•    heightened abilities in pattern recognition
•    good logical reasoning abilities
•    greater attention to detail and accuracy
•    excellent memory and concentration
•    passion about their special interest
•    good timekeepers
•    honest and reliable to name but a few! 

Most are also very clear about their own needs and will be happy to share these.

Apprenticeships in appropriate industries can be a much better way of learning a role for a person with autism as it does not rely on having to apply skills and knowledge learned elsewhere to a new setting as generalisation can be a challenge.  Apprenticeships which include a lot of face to face contact with the public tend to be less suited to people with autism because of the complex social skills required to undertake this role.  Jobs that include significant amounts of lone working and attention to detail can be very easily made accessible to a person with autism.  

Furthermore, jobs which require focus for long periods of time, repetitive procedures, specialist knowledge or those that follow a clear process are so well suited that often a person on the spectrum will out-perform non autistic peers. This would include roles in IT development, engineering, museums or art galleries, libraries, data entry, train stations, proof- reading... The list is endless!  The main challenge is a want from employers to make it work. 

I believe that key to increasing apprenticeships for people with autism is information and support to employers to help them understand the condition and realise that differences can be assets in the correct role. This information needs to be readily accessible and include practical steps that would remove any barriers to success. Case studies of where this has worked well should be published and widely publicised.

Employers need to realise that simple steps can be taken to modify the environment and work place to make this accessible to a person with autism. This can include written or visual timetables of the work required and the timeframe for this which can be accessed independently by the employee. Some work places have adopted ‘mentor’ schemes where staff support new employees and help establish work routines and practices.  This works best when training has been undertaken by staff to understand how to communicate with a person with autism using literal, unambiguous language without superficial ‘small talk’.

Many people with autism fail at the first hurdle of an interview because of the unique nature of this setting. Neurotypical candidates learn how to undertake this process with ease and are able to predict questions that will be asked and the answers that employers will want to hear. People with autism can find this process confusing because of their need to be honest in their responses. Questions such as ‘why do you want this job?’ are likely to be answered with ‘because I can earn money’ rather than a politically correct reply about the merits of the company. It is therefore vitally important that this aspect of recruitment is managed sympathetically and with an understanding of autistic spectrum disorders.

Those who have found employers who are willing to offer the minimal support required report that it has been a positive and valuable experience for both parties. It is vital that we challenge the notion that adults with disabilities cannot perform and highlight that in some instances they can outperform their non-disabled peers.

The Priory Group supports over 1,000 young people on the autistic spectrum across 24 specialist sites nationwide and all are keen to increase the number of students moving into apprenticeships and paid work after their studies. One of these sites has recently successfully supported a student through an apprenticeship and on to full-time paid employment with the support of a local college.  The students’ name has been changed for the purposes of confidentiality. 

Case study

David attended a three year programme of independence and vocational training at a Priory specialist College from September 2011 to July 2014. David has a diagnosis of autism, ADHD and has previously suffered with mental health issues. The college provided support for David to develop work skills and a programme of study to support his understanding of social communication such as understanding metaphors and idioms’.  This helped David to understand the language that he was likely to be confronted with in a work setting. The college supported his employers to make the necessary modifications to enable David to fully participate in his apprenticeship training.

David completed a Level 3 Carpentry and Joinery course at a local college alongside numeracy (functional skills), badminton, horticulture and Duke of Edinburgh award and successfully completed his apprenticeship as a shop fitter. This gave him the confidence, focus and drive to pursue a job. He now has full time paid employment in this field. He is hoping to become self-employed in the future and run his own business.

David says that he is happy to finally be able to work in the area he has wanted to work in for years. 

Acknowledgement: Jim Glover, Vice Principal, Priory Education Services provided additional content for this article.

Date added: 23 March 2016