Autism at work

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Adults with autism can make ideal employees. David Bocking reports on a scheme that prepares school-leavers for the world of work

Nineteen-year-old Andrew Mallowan is in many ways an ideal employee. Friendly, cheerful, punctual, completely focused on the task at hand, quick to learn, and so devoted to his job at Sainsbury's that he had to be reminded to take the 30 hours' holiday time owing to him.

"I wish he was here longer," says customer services supervisor Sue Hey.

Andrew is packing carrier bags several tills away, smiling and exchanging a few words with an elderly customer, listening for calls from supervisors on his radio headset. Sue walks towards him, requesting a packer at another checkout. Andrew ignores her presence, and volunteers his services into his headset as he marches away, without looking at Sue, even though she's almost close enough to shake hands.

Andrew is autistic, and Sue Hey has worked with him long enough to understand: in Andrew's mind, when he's on packing duties, Sue is a voice in his ear, so the thing to do is speak to her on the radio even if she is less than two metres away.

Andrew started working at Sainsbury's six years ago, on a special work-placement scheme organised by the Integrated Resource at Sheffield's King Ecgbert's Secondary School. If he hadn't found this post at Sainsbury's, says teacher-in-charge Matthew Hesmondhalgh, Andrew might be looking forward to a life on the dole. "In the UK, something like 98 per cent of autistic adults are unemployed," says Matthew. "The standard thing for a 21-year-old with autism is to be stuck at home." This, Matthew and his colleagues insist, makes no sense at all.

The Integrated Resource was founded in 1994 to provide a service for children with autism and related conditions within a mainstream secondary school. Although a proportion of those attending attain good results at GCSE, it soon became clear that a different approach was needed for the remaining 90 per cent of pupils.

"Andrew Mallowan and Shaun Edwards were two of our first pupils, and as they got to Year 9 we realised that they both actually had pretty good strengths, if we played to them," Matthew says. "Once they grasped a task, they weren't going to forget it. They were always punctual, always put their best into everything, always had their work in on time and they were making friends with their peers. They wanted to know about the world. We were finding that autism was not necessarily a closed and insular place."

What Andrew, Shaun and their contemporaries needed was a chance to go out into the world of work. The standard work experience (two weeks at Year 10) was of little use to children with autism. "They'd need two weeks just to begin settling down in a place", says Matthew. So after writing to virtually all the businesses and organisations within a two-mile radius of the Resource, the Integration Into Work scheme was launched. Andrew Mallowan went to Sainsbury's to stack fruit and vegetables once a week, and Shaun Edwards went to work in the public library down the road. In both cases, Matthew went along to learn the job and support his students in their new workplace.

Now Andrew has a paid part-time job at Sainsbury's and Shaun is employed full-time as an administrative assistant at Sheffield council's housing department. Four more pupils are also in paid work, 10 are working towards vocational qualifications at Sheffield College, and the charity funding Integrated Resource's out-of-school education scheme is about to appoint a second support worker to help autistic teenagers and young adults into placements and employment at Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping centre, one of the largest and busiest in Europe.

"Meadowhall is noisy, there's lots of people and lots of movement, it's not an obvious place for people with autism. But if Shaun can work in the housing office, which is open plan with lots of people moving around, it just shows that the literature on autism is open to challenge. The rules are not set in stone," says Matthew.

"Where Shaun works, I find it hard to focus myself. But he just gets on with it. He's got a series of jobs to do and the people there love him.

Sorting the post might be very boring for you or me, but Shaun takes a great pride in that job, and won't rest until it's been done thoroughly. He knows exactly what he's doing, there's 100 per cent certainty about it and that's very reassuring. He feels valued and loved and respected, and that's as important to people like Shaun as it is for anyone else."

The students have support throughout their time at work, and a member of staff (usually a specialist support worker from the local authority) goes along to learn the job and to "interpret" between the students and their workmates. As each student settles in, the support worker moves away to a different part of the office, and eventually leaves them to work with their new colleagues on their own. "The process is a little like the Jenga stacking game," says Matthew. "If there are one or two blocks missing, or one or two wobbling, then you or I could cope. But with autism it has to be rock solid - every brick has to be in place if they're to function and progress as well as they can."

Matthew Hesmondhalgh was awarded an MBE last year for services to special education, which he accepted on behalf of his whole team. The Integrated Resource is now seen as a national example of what can be achieved for autistic people. Matthew's aim is to reduce unemployment for autistic adults in Sheffield to 25 per cent. With the link to Meadowhall, he hopes the scheme will begin to pay for itself in terms of unemployment benefit saved. Then, he adds, he'll be on his way to ask politicians for more money to help reach his target.

"I like helping people," says Andrew Mallowan, who only a few years ago had difficulty talking to anyone he didn't know. "I like to bring a smile to their faces and make them happy." Matthew is listening from nearby. "This condition brings along with it certain skills, and if you find the right niche for one of these young people, the right job, they're going to be wonderful."

Andrew disappears towards the car park with an elderly man's trolley, chatting as he goes. "There's no rocket science to this," says Matthew.

"It's just common sense."

King Ecgbert's School Integrated Resource: and Inclusion for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders by Matthew Hesmondalgh and Christine Breakey (Jessica Kingsley, pound;14.95)

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