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Sheffield Telegraph, Friday March 31, 2006, p17

A pioneering Sheffield project to help young people who have autism into jobs can continue for another three years, thanks to a lottery grant. David Bocking reports

They are keen, punctual hard workers - so give them a job

TWENTY years ago, When Sean Edwards and Jonathan Clarke were babies, people with autism would be looking forward to a life on the dole.

Instead, Jonathan is chopping vegetables and preparing pasta for Mama Amalfi’s restaurant in Meadowhall’s Oasis, whilst Shaun is carefully filing records in Sheffield Council’s housing aid department.

“It’s great to help members of the public, and to get them out of problems,” says Shaun.

A generation ago, 19 out of 20 people who’d grown up with autism in Sheffield could expect a lifetime of unemployment after leaving school. Often, they’d spend their life at home, meeting few people outside their own family.

But now Sheffielders with autism like Shaun and Jonathan might find themselves working in shops, restaurants, cafes, offices, supermarkets or, if Matthew Hesmondhalgh has his way, absolutely anywhere.

“We’d love to speak to employers like banks, the post office, the police, solicitors, other departments of the council, in fact any employer it doesn’t matter if it’s the wackiest job, they should just phone us up and talk to us.”

What such an employer would get in return is an enthusiastic, punctual employee who’s rarely off work with illness.

And after a period of support, their new autistic employee will get on with the job and make fellow employees feel more positive about coming to work too, says Matthew.

Three years ago the Supported Employment Project, the first and so far only one of its kind in the UK, took the outlandish step of setting up an employment service for autistic people in one of Europe’s biggest shopping centres.

Bear in mind here that, although large shopping centres are a popular environment for many people, received opinion in autistic circles had been that the last place a person with communication and socialising difficulties would want to spend their working life would be in a seething hubbub of total strangers.

As Supported Employment Project leader Glynis Wood says, there are people here who are rewriting the book on autism. “No employer should rule themselves out,” she says.

This month, the project received a £100,000 grant from the Big Lottery Fund to keep going for another three years and pay for another member of staff to help Glynis support people at work, sound out new employers and then match them to one of the many autistic people currently applying for work or work experience through the project.

At present there are 12 people in paid work under the scheme — at Meadowhall and in other locations around Sheffield and another 12 on work placements. But the waiting list is growing, so new employers are desperately needed.

“I’d say to anyone in the catering trade, go for it,” says Adrian Kennedy, Jonathan Clarke’s supervisor at Mama Amalfi’s. “He gets on with his jobs and then straight away he looks for other jobs to do and takes the pressure off us. It’s taught us about autism and changed our minds completely towards that kind of thing.”

“This job has helped me a lot,” says Jonathan Clarke. “It’s helped me socially and it’s easier now to talk to people. And I’m getting paid!”

Council housing staff are equally positive about the benefits of employing Shaun Edwards, both to them and the department.

“We appreciate that Shaun works very hard,” says council housing manager Chris Galley. “He’s part of a team and he feels part of the team.”

Chris adds that it’s been important to play to Shaun’s strengths, since he finds some parts of the housing assistant job stressful or difficult — such as carrying out complicated arithmetic or spending a lot of time on the telephone.

But Shaun is happy filing and dealing with the post and is seen as the office expert when the photocopier has broken down, so by carrying out jobs other team members don’t enjoy so much he can leave them to tasks which they prefer.

“We like to go for a win-win situation where he feels happy doing jobs for us that relieve the burdens of our other staff,” says Chris. “Then everyone feels as if they’re winning. Shaun is happy and we get work done that needs to be done.”

Matthew Hesmondhalgh is teacher in charge of the Integrated Resource at King Ecgbert’s School for secondary pupils with severe communication disorders or difficulties with language, many of whom have autistic spectrum disorders (ASD's).

The Resource set up the Supported Employment Project to offer its pupils a chance to enter the world of work and, after many hours of writing funding applications and charity bids, Matthew now thinks it’s time the Government saw the potential for such projects to offer a better life for autistic people and save hundreds of thousands of pounds by getting autistic people into work instead of paying them benefit to sit at home for the rest of their lives.

The project’s Big Lottery grant is dependent on another £60,000 being raised from other sources and, rather than applying for more donations Matthew is asking people to write to the Minister for Disabled People to try and persuade the government to offer £15,000 a year to the project.

“If the Government is determined to change the work culture to give greater access to people with disabilities, then this is an opportunity to do that,” he says. “We’re not asking them to finance this scheme, we’re asking for some of the savings to come back.”

“Most organisations have roles for someone in Shaun’s position,” says Chris Galley. “And he’s young and energetic, he’s got a lifetime’s work ahead of him.”

Sheffield Telegraph, Friday March 31, 2006
Article reproduced by kind permission of Sheffield Papers