Autism and employment: developing workplace skills
As you walk through the doors of our school in Thurnscoe, South Yorkshire, the first thing you see is a tempting array of crafts and gifts, handmade cards and stationery, wooden nesting boxes and ceramic pots in a variety of shapes and sizes.
This colourful display showcases just a few of the items made by our pupils and sold in the school shop – also run and manned by young people from the school – and some of their products are available at various local outlets as well.
One piece of produce goes even further afield. Our very own Robert Ogden fudge, cooked here on the premises, is shipped across to Whalley Abbey in Lancashire to be cut up, packaged and sold at exhibitions and conferences around the country by people from the National Autistic Society (NAS) adult services for northern England.
In this way, adults on the autism spectrum get the opportunity to interact with the public, handle money and gain practical experience of customer care, boosting their self-confidence and developing skills that will stand them in good stead in the workplace. The opening in June of a splendid new café and gift shop at Whalley Abbey will further expand these opportunities.
Meanwhile, back at school, our pupils are working hard on these very same skills and their range of products continues to grow. Some of these will take pride of place in the Lancashire gift shop.
Welcome to Autisan Creative Enterprises. NAS Robert Ogden School went on to win the 2015 Autism Professionals Award for Inspirational Education Provision (secondary).
Boosting employment prospects
Founded in 2013, this joint venture between ourselves and NAS adult services for northern England is run on a sustainable model, where the profits are ploughed back into the business to allow us to expand and improve our services and reach out to a greater number of people.
People with autism have their own unique strengths, yet this fact is not reflected in employment statistics, which show that a mere 16 per cent of adults on the spectrum are in full-time work. So the initial aim of our partnership was to enable adults to develop key skills that would improve their employment prospects, address public misconceptions about what people with autism can and cannot achieve, and prepare our pupils for the moment when they too must relinquish the security of our supportive environment and hold their own in the big wide world.
In the longer term, we hoped to create our own job opportunities. Only two years down the line, the opening of the new café at Whalley Abbey shows that this is already beginning to happen.
Meanwhile, here at the school, we have our first Autisan member of staff. But more of that later. First I will outline how it all came about.
The germ of an idea
Pupils practice in making choices, spending money and socialising with their peers
The idea grew out of a lunchtime café we set up at school a few years ago, where pupils cook and serve simple meals and snacks to fellow pupils and staff.
Called Storm in a Coffee Cup (after Storm House, the school’s original name when it opened in the 1980’s), it allows the young people who work there to gain experience in things like food preparation, customer service and operating the till, while those who use the facility develop important life skills in terms of making choices, spending money and socialising with their peers. We also do a lot of peer mentoring, so people who have been working in the café for a while take responsibility for training new members of the team.
Depending on their interests and capabilities, pupils can gain certificates in food hygiene and customer service or prepare for an NVQ in catering. For some, it has also served as a stepping stone to work experience in the village sweet shop, which has a café attached, giving them a taste of what it feels like to cater for members of the public, but with carefully structured support, so that when they come to leave school that prospect doesn’t appear as daunting as it might do.
Pupils take the skills they have learned at school out into the wider community
Once the café was up and running, this generated all sorts of other activities.
We have a pottery suite complete with workshop and kiln, where pupils make vases, planters and ornaments, which were sold in reception before we created the school shop – again to give the pupils who work there some retail experience and allow their customers to become familiar with what a shop looks like and how it operates before venturing into the village to try their hand at doing some shopping there.
Enterprise is an important part of our curriculum for all age groups, but especially in the sixth form, where pupils have a wide range of vocational options to choose from. One of these is horticulture, and some of the fruit and vegetables they grow go across to adult services to be sold in their farm shop or made into jams and chutneys. Our young gardeners also provide a bespoke service for parents, staff and friends of the school by planting up ceramic pots and wicker baskets to create an attractive gift.
In addition, some of the young people do work experience in a local primary school, painting fences and helping with grounds maintenance, so they are taking the skills they have learned in their horticultural lessons at school out into the wider community.
Tapping into interests and strengths
I was determined from the outset that the enterprise was not going to be just for our highest achievers and that pupils of all abilities would be able to get involved and take ownership. This means that roles and tasks are carefully allocated according to individual interests and strengths. The same principle applies to the products.
For example, the year before last we had a very low ability pupil who was extremely anxious and often presented challenging behaviour. One thing that helped to calm him down was shredding paper, but rather than just handing him the shredder and leaving it at that, we turned what was ostensibly a repetitive, mundane activity into something productive by converting the shreds into papier mâché to make firebricks, which are now part of the Autisan range.
Likewise, we have a young man at the moment who loves arranging and rearranging marbles, so we have found a company that can sell us loose sweets, which he can sift, weigh and put into bags to be sold.
Some of our least able pupils are also involved in a project called 50:50, where they make firebricks, bookmarks, paperweights and other small items, which are sold in local shops on a 50:50 basis: the shop nominates a charity to receive 50 percent of the profits and we retain the remainder.
It is a really good way of enabling these young people to feel comfortable about going into shops and simultaneously helping members of the community to see beyond a child’s autism to their qualities as an individual. So it becomes a case of: ‘Oh look, here’s Levi, come to collect the money or replenish our bookmarks,’ rather than: ‘Oh look, there’s one of those disabled kids from Robert Ogden School walking up the road.’
Forging links with businesses and other organisations is an important part of what we do and in addition to those we have already established, we are currently in discussion with a couple of charity shops and a florist, as well as a café that might be willing to host a pop-up Storm in a Coffee Cup.
Another of our plans is to display some excellent artwork by a group of our pupils in the local library or in the church hall – again to let them see that school is part of the wider community and their work has value beyond the school gates.
Meanwhile, a new farm shop has just opened at Hoylands House, an NAS residential service near Barnsley, which will stock a range of our products and provide work experience opportunities as well.
And, of course, Café Autisan has just come on stream, providing another new market for a variety of items, including our flagship Robert Ogden fudge. Which brings me back to our first Autisan employee.
A man of many talents
Connor Matthews is a former pupil and our official fudge maker. One day a week he comes into school independently on the bus, sets to work in part of the kitchen reserved just for him, joins colleagues in the staff room at break times as a fully-fledged member of the team, then catches the bus to go back home again.
As our enterprise ambassador, he also attends the steering committee of pupils that runs the shop and is helping to coordinate the sale of the fudge, with our support. We are hoping to involve him as well in helping us set up a back office for the shop, where children who are not interested in serving customers or replenishing the shelves will be able to learn the essentials of business administration.
We try to envisage every possible scenario so that they don’t go into a blind panic if things go wrong
The fact that Connor is able to take on these responsibilities is down to the extensive back work we do with all of our pupils to enable them to become as independent as they possibly can.
Our speech and language therapist plays a pivotal role, working closely with the teachers to organise communication groups, develop children’s social skills and do role plays to prepare them for different situations they might find themselves in and give them coping strategies should things go wrong.
What if they were out on their own and the bus didn’t turn up? What would they do if they got off at the wrong stop or realised too late that they had left their wallet behind? No matter how well they prepare for an outing, that is no guarantee that all will run smoothly. So we try to envisage every possible scenario so that they don’t go into a blind panic if they do get in a pickle.
The school caters for a wide range of abilities, from children with severe difficulties to those who are extremely cognitively able.
In a way, it’s the latter who present us with the greatest challenge. They are the ones who, later in life, will be out and about in the community, doing their own thing and making their way in the world. Or they will if we get it right. If we don’t, they are going to be sitting in their bedrooms with neither the skills nor the inclination to take what life has to offer them because it’s all just too hard and too stressful.
The role of the NAS is to try and educate the wider public as far possible to make people aware of the challenges and the difficulties that people with autism face, so that we gradually have a more empathic community. But we can’t educate everybody. There will always be people out there who don’t understand what autism is all about, making life for people on the spectrum even harder.
That’s why we have to make sure that the work we do with our pupils is really robust so that they can function as well as they possibly can.
With that back work in place, the opportunities provided by Autisan Creative Enterprises really come into their own.
A replicable model
One of the strengths of Autisan is its flexible and self-sustaining business model, which allows us to continually reinvest the proceeds so it keeps growing. It is a model that could easily be transferred to other schools, albeit on a smaller scale.
Tips from our experience
- Keep it simple to start with and build up slowly. Making firebricks, for example, is easy to do and requires no special equipment.
- Look at some of the special interests of the young people and find ways of developing these.
- Create opportunities for the children to see that they actually can get involved and produce things of good quality.
- Find local outlets to raise the profile of your enterprise, give it more importance in the pupils’ eyes and open up opportunities for closer links with the community. It doesn’t have to be complicated. One of our first product ranges was a collection of bookmarks, which we took to the library together with a poster advertising that they were on sale here.
- Encourage parents who worry about their child’s future and feel protective towards them to think laterally. Work doesn’t have to mean going out to a factory or sitting in an office. The shed at the bottom of the garden could be their child’s working environment.
Find out more
This article is taken from Special Children Magazine, issue 226. PDF versions of the magazines are available to download in the My Account area under My Magazines for subscribers of the Knowledge Centre and Premium CPD.