Slowly layering pre-work support for SEND students is vital. I’m autistic myself – I know

Businesses are missing out on talented young people who find preparing for the workplace overwhelming. Shirley Woods-Gallagher suggests how colleges can help

Businesses are missing out on talented young people who find preparing for the workplace overwhelming. Shirley Woods-Gallagher suggests how colleges can help

9 May 2023, 5:00

Last year I was trolled by a welfare rights officer. They objected to me using my own autistic lived experience in a leadership role to lift others and give representation to my autistic students. The reason? I am normalising the idea that autistic people can work.

Unless either you or a loved one are autistic you may not know that just 29 per cent of autistic adults in the UK are in paid employment. Of those autistic people not yet ‘out’, 65 per cent said they wouldn’t disclose their neurodiversity to their line manager through fear of discrimination.

Over the years, my various roles in the education and children’s sectors have involved working with students, staff and employers. I have found a few initiatives to be particularly effective in preparing autistic students for the world of work.

Manager confidence is key

Workplace culture is everything. If you are going to support your neurodiverse students to find jobs they love, your neurodiverse staff must love their jobs too.

This is all about upskilling your managers to ensure staff feel included and valued. Too many managers have their own internal imposter syndrome going on and what you can then get is a culture of managers wanting to be popular with the crowd.

But inclusion is an intentional act and successfully managing workplace adjustments for disabled staff requires strong, confident leaders to manage those non-disabled team members who may gripe that “It’s not fair she gets to wear ear defenders,” or “Why can he work hybrid three days per week,” or “It’s so unfair they get interview questions in advance!” 

One way to tackle this is asking your managers about their confidence to manage case studies on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in small group workshops, so they do not lose face.

I would urge all would-be employers to examine their own workplace culture first when it comes to helping students transition to jobs. The ground must be fertile to plant a seed that grows.

Offer staged internships

Many students with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) aren’t ready for year-long, full-time supported internships and it’s important for them to ‘try before they buy’. This can be done by providing different study levels and pathways.

An example is the provision at Digital Independent Specialist College (DISC). This Manchester-based college delivers programmes in partnership with SENDCode, a social enterprise that supports young, neurodiverse people who are not engaging in education. Together, they’ve crafted three layered programmes for their students including an alternative provision pathway which gives an insight into their pre-internship for school-aged students who struggle to access the mainstream curriculum.

They also offer a flexible pre-internship, based on students’ interests, which includes remote learning, travel training, work at DISC’s city centre studio and, where appropriate, external work placements.

A year-long, full-time supported internship for young people with an EHCP is also available alongside pastoral, peer-to-peer and weekly maths and English support.

Recreate work settings

Develop ‘pop-up’ employment experiences where students work on live briefs and feel what it’s like to work in an organisation, but within the small-scale, supported environment of their own college setting.

In the past, we’ve worked with charity, Digital Advantage on developing a replica creative agency within New Bridge where our students design logos, write scripts, and make films and podcasts. It’s significantly improved their confidence, self-esteem and understanding of how businesses operate.

Showcase top job opportunities

In May 2022, we took our digital pathway students from our college to Apple’s headquarters in Chicago to design a new app. It’s an experience they will never forget; they were so energised and determined after the visit. We must push at the ambitions of young people with SEND so they can carve out a meaningful future for themselves.

Support employers to adapt

Colleges must work with employers, so they adjust their recruitment practices. Online job ads, complex application forms and formal interviews might mean businesses are missing out on many talented young people with SEND.

Students, too, need support to navigate the recruitment process so they can continue to be themselves and achieve what we all want – to start, stay and succeed in work.

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