For World Autism Day, Careers Adviser Maggie Nason writes about her experience of providing careers guidance and employability advice to students with autism.

Adviza careers adviser Maggie NasonAs a Careers Adviser, I support students with autism in mainstream education, and in specialist education designed to meet the needs of pupils with complex educational needs. Many of my students exhibit challenging behaviours and have difficulty communicating, and it’s useful for me to connect with them at a relatively early age (year 7) so that I can start building trust. For my students, I’m a link between school and the outside world, and that can make the process of entering the workplace and society beyond school a little easier for them.

Opening up

I work with autistic students on a one-to-one basis. The biggest challenge I face is getting them to engage, and it helps to learn about their interests and fears. I can use their interests to create an empathetic environment that will help them open up, or find a way into a conversation by addressing their fears, which is where many students need to start. It can be a challenge to understand what their interests are and translate that into an appropriate environment.

I have to find something that helps me reach my students, whether that’s allowing them to play with a fidget toy, walking around a room while we talk, or lying on bean bags.

One pupil I have worked with is passionate about sports but not much else grabs his attention. His behaviour means he can’t engage for long in a classroom environment (minutes at a time). He’d rather be outdoors or on an exercise bike – so I have conducted our sessions with him on an exercise bike, which helps him to relax and open up. He is quite happy chatting away whilst peddling. I have to find something that helps me reach my students, whether that’s allowing them to play with a fidget toy, walking around a room while we talk, or lying on bean bags.

I see young people with a huge range of learning and behavioural difficulties. Some of my students are non-verbal and unlikely to access any form of work in their lives so more consideration is given to channelling their skills and interests. This is merely my first step with them; conversations about careers or further education come later after we have built trust over a period of time. Sometimes students will be accompanied by a teacher or key worker, but as far as possible I try to engage them on their own, as it’s a useful step in helping them to prepare for a world after school.

Managing autistic students

Teachers and staff in specialist schools need to be continually in touch and work as a close-knit team often via walkie-talkies and have to react to challenging behaviours as we experience them. I might have five minutes with a student one day and an hour the next. My careers guidance agenda has to be loose; I cover the basics as best I can but I can’t force the learning. Often my sessions are most effective when delivered over a long time frame.

Managing fear

Many autistic students have a lot of fear about work. They have experienced bullying in mainstream schools in the past and are keen to understand the support they will get when they get out into the world. They have a huge amount of social anxiety, and if they are interested in a particular college course they may want to know who else will be studying with them. These are perfectly normal barriers faced every day by autistic students, who have to overcome so much more than the rest of us before they can contemplate embarking on an experience we might take for granted.

Moving on

Many of the students I see have autism or different types of attachment disorders. In recent years some have been able to study for GCSEs, BTECs and other qualifications, and I’ve also seen some go on to university. College and university though can present challenges for autistic people who can be very overwhelmed by unfamiliar environments, so provisions for home study as well can make all the difference in their post-school academic success. Colleges are large institutions and it can be difficult to get them effectively set up for autistic students.

The value of work experience to autistic students

The pandemic meant fewer opportunities for anyone to gain work experience. Any crisis is hardest on the most disadvantaged, and a dearth of available work experience has made it even harder for autistic students to gain valuable confidence-building opportunities. Resources such as videos of the workplace and specific roles can be enormously valuable in this context, as can opportunities for online work experience but we need more of these.

The advice I give

Many students believe they have no skills, so developing their confidence and helping them to recognise their talent is a part of what I do.

I teach employability skills, preparation for college and the working world. Sometimes I develop interview skills and I am often asked by students about rights at work because of their understandable fear of the unknown and what it might bring. I help students with their CVs which can be a very empowering process. Many students believe they have no skills, so developing their confidence and helping them to recognise their talent is a part of what I do. Many of my students have loads of skills and plenty to offer.  One is very interested in history and although he is studying for GCSEs he is already beyond degree level in knowledge and intelligence and his skills could be an asset to any organisation.

Employment opportunities for autistic students

It can be difficult to find employers who are both prepared to offer opportunities to autistic students and within commuting distance for people whose condition can be tiring for a variety of reasons. Many employers worry about the impact autistic employees can have on other staff, and I’d like to see more trials where employers are encouraged to give autistic candidates work experience with no pressure or expectation for either party. This could provide valuable experience for candidates as well as an opportunity for people to see the fantastic ideas and passion many autistic people have. As job roles become more bespoke and creative, I hope there will continue to be more opportunities for autistic employees.

In recent years I have seen autistic students secure IT and engineering jobs; fantastic news in a sector with a widely-recognised skills shortage. Many students are diligent, hard-working and loyal. In fact, since familiarity and trust are critical for them, many want to settle down and commit to an employer who will give them an opportunity for the long term.

Building confidence and opportunities

It’s a joy to see young students come out of their shell and channel their energies productively.

For young people with behavioural and cognitive challenges, there are fears and dangers everywhere in situations we take for granted. Many of Adviza’s programmes help to develop confidence and ambition in young people, and a lot of what I do is the same. It’s a joy to see young students come out of their shell and channel their energies productively. I help to build my students’ self-esteem and exterior confidence, both of which are very important. For many of my students, even simple activities like going to the shop can be a major event. To help people go from this to successfully holding down a job is a dream worth striving for.

 

Adviza is proud to offer staff a platform to share their views on a wide range of diversity and inclusion topics and acknowledges that these are, as they should be, many and varied. We champion equality and diversity which means all views are welcome.

Our vision is for all young people and adults to make better decisions that help them achieve their full potential. That includes following the path that makes them happy and being the most authentic version of themselves.

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