Our understanding of autism is growing thanks to the dedicated work of charities like Autism Plus. Andrew Griffiths went to Sheffield to find out more.
Autism Plus is a Yorkshire based charity that helps adults with autism and learning difficulties to live as independently as their own situation will allow.
They offer residential services in Thorne and Scarborough, social enterprise businesses across Yorkshire which allow people with autism to lead meaningful and productive lives, and community support services in Sheffield and Doncaster.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the charity, which has offices beside Lady’s Bridge in Sheffield.
Among the service users is 22-year-old Luke Biddle who has found his first paid employment as a result of his time spent with Autism Plus.
Suzanne Eusman, strategic disability lead, took me along a series of corridors to a meeting room where she told me Luke would be waiting for us. “It’s a room he’s used to,” she explained. “He feels comfortable in there.”
And this is important for people with autism. Disruption to routine can prove unsettling and can provoke extreme anxiety in some, as can unfamiliar social situations.
These traits don’t make finding work easy by the traditional routes – job interviews are stressful at the best of times, but add to this the difficulty in reading social cues and high anxiety levels that people with autism experience, and they can come to feel like insurmountable barriers.
This probably explains why recent research by the National Autistic Society (NAS) revealed that only 16 per cent of adults with autism are in full-time work.
This compares to 47 per cent of the more general category of disabled people who are in some kind of paid employment, say the NAS. While more is being done to recognise and help children with autism at school age, clearly support for later life and people who are diagnosed later in their life is leaving a lot to be desired.
Hence the need for one-to-one intensive help such as that offered by Autism Plus under its First Routes programme, which has benefitted Luke.
But Eusman tells me that staff are struggling to meet demand.
“I’ve only taken over that specific project a year ago, and we’ve gone from one staff member and nine people accessing it, to 25 service users and three staff members in that team.” she says. “In the past six weeks we’ve helped three people into work. One of them as a software engineer for a university, another as an admin person, and someone at Pizza Express who had never worked before.”
In the meeting room, Luke was waiting with Natalie Knaggs, a Skills Pathways Facilitator. I’d been made aware that Luke was likely to be nervous, and this interview was clearly a challenge for him, but one that Eusman and Knaggs had judged he was ready for.
And Luke is one of Autism Plus’s big success stories. He hadn’t managed to make a good transition from school and college into the adult world, and he had first come to the charity when his life was at a low ebb. He then spent 18 months with their community service team.
“It is confidence building, trying to get out into the community because I struggle outside a lot,” he says. “Trying to get used to different situations, it is all about confidence at the end of the day.”
Then it was on to First Route, when the real search for that first job began. Biddle had always wanted to be a driver. “I love driving,” he tells me. “I am a big car fan, driving is the only thing that seems to calm me down. So why not do a job that involves driving and keep calm all the time?”
Then the opportunity arose to apply to be a driver for Sense, the deaf-blind charity. He was offered an interview. It was his first ever job interview for his first proper job. “How I nailed the interview first time I’ll never know!” he says with a sudden rush of energy, and he does still sound genuinely surprised. “You did amazing,” says Eusman. “You’re going to well up now, aren’t you?” he teases her.
“First job he had applied for, first real job interview he had ever been to, first paid job.” says Eusman laughing, but with real pride.
Peter Briggs was a founder member of the charity 30 years ago, when a group of parents all with autistic children found there were no facilities for them and so decided to provide their own. Briggs remains a trustee of Autism Plus today and his son Duncan, now 53, is in residential care.
When I spoke to Briggs he told me that he sees an increasingly important role for Autism Plus’s services. The Government’s Think Autism strategy, launched in 2014, was designed to raise awareness of adults with autism and provides some funding for local services and projects.
The charity has recently provided autism awareness training to Jobcentre Plus staff in Leeds, a joint enterprise with the Local Authority and NHS.
This, combined with the just launched green paper to consult on ways to halve the disability employment gap and promote a more integrated approach to services for people with disabilities in general, seems to be favouring local initiatives.
But while Briggs is optimistic over the growth of the funding potential of their social enterprises in the long-term, he is less optimistic about the immediate future.
“We’ve taken the most enormous hit in terms of funding, as have all charities,” he tells me.
“The disabled in this country are at the bottom of the heap. They are not regarded, and the people who care for them are not regarded.
“The people who work with people with autism and other disabilities are heroes. You can earn more working in a supermarket than caring for people with complex needs such as those we look after.”
In the meeting room overlooking Sheffield’s River Don my interview with Luke is drawing to a close.
He had clearly been nervous but had coped well. He has been in his driving job with Sense for 12 months now.
“So Luke is at the point now where he is looking to the future and saying he wants to work more hours, and to come off benefits altogether.” says Eusman.
There was a moment of shared satisfaction between Luke, Eusman, and his skills facilitator Natalie Knaggs. I got the feeling that he was there doing this interview for them, for all they had done for him. And they were there for him, to help him chalk up another milestone along his journey to independence. They were willing the words from him at times.
I asked Luke to describe the difference finding this job had made to his life.
“I feel more myself really, rather than having to have help all the time.” he says. “It has changed a lot at home as well, I am a lot calmer, generally just a lot happier, because I am in employment. If I wasn’t, people would be saying: ‘Well why aren’t you in work? You’re 22 and you haven’t got a job?’
“Now I can say that I am in work, and I’ve got a job, and I’m doing something with my life, which is good, something positive to say.”
Living with autism
Four times as many boys as girls are diagnosed with autism.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition that affects how a person communicates with, and relates to, other people and the world around them.
It is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. So while some people with autism are able to live relatively everyday lives, others require a lifetime of specialist support.
Today there are around 700,000 people in the UK who know they have the condition.
For more information visit www.autismplus.org or www.autism.org.uk