An autistic man from Hampshire who suffered a breakdown aged 13 will share his personal story on finding employment at a unique business event hosted by the charity Autism Wessex.
Autism Works takes place at Parley Manor, Christchurch, on July 5 and will encourage businesses to recognise and embrace the huge, untapped potential of autistic talent.
The complimentary event will feature industry expert speakers and break out taster training sessions for employers to learn about autism awareness, recruitment hints and tips and workplace adjustments.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability that affects how people perceive the world and interact with others.
At the event, Robert Ward, 37, from Lymington, will explain how he struggled through seven years of mainstream education and a lack of understanding in the workplace before finally finding a role where his unique skills were appreciated and valued.
“I really want to help spread the message to employers about the value of employing neurodiverse people. I’m nervous talking publicly, but I want to share the positive experience I have had at Autism Wessex and to encourage other employers to follow suit.
“I knew I was different at school. The way the other children acted confused me. I became more and more isolated, and at 13, I had a breakdown.”
Robert’s problems eased when he started attending a specialist school in Hampshire, and he was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s, a neuro developmental disorder characterised by difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication.
Unfortunately, his relief was short-lived, he said:
“Careers advisors had no autism experience or knowledge to help me secure employment.
“I started work in a shop, but no one understood the challenges I faced and how I could have overcome them.
“I joined another supermarket. The help they promised me at the beginning – to learn slowly in different departments and to have someone guiding me through the till work – never materialised, and I ended up spending the next 18 months at home, afraid to even leave the house.”
Robert’s desperate parents approached Autism Wessex for support. The charity provides children, adults and families with a range of specialist care, support and education.
Building independence and preparation for adulthood is a core part of the services delivered by Autism Wessex. As well as The Portfield School, they have a sixth form education centre based in Christchurch and their Adult Services division delivering residential and community assistance throughout Dorset.
Initially, Robert spent a day a week at the charity, and after a year, he took a voluntary role in their fundraising department. Thanks to the fact that he is now in an environment where he can thrive, Robert has progressed into a full-time paid role with the charity working as an administrator for health and safety and facilities.
“The fact that I have a career I love is due to the charity’s willingness to make small changes for me and recognise the contribution I make to the organisation,” he said.
“I only wish that more employers would appreciate how much of a benefit the unique skills of autistic people can be to their organisation.”
Figures published by The Office for National Statistics (ONS) in February 2021 show that just16% of autistic adults are in any kind of employment.
Siún Cranny, Autism Wessex’s CEO, said:
“Many autistic people, like Robert, have a range of exceptional skills that enable them to thrive in the workplace, such as detailed factual knowledge, excellent memory and high levels of concentration, reliability and conscientiousness.
“However, autistic candidates are often disadvantaged when it comes to securing and then maintaining a job because of a lack of understanding and support – and that’s what we want to change.
“Minor adjustments in the workplace can open up a world of opportunities for both the employee and the employer, and we are hoping to demonstrate how easy this is at our Autism Works event on 5th July.”
Later this year, the Government is due to publish a new national autism strategy for England. This will set out how autistic people should be better supported and how Government, local authorities and the NHS will make it happen.
“Change is coming, but slowly. We hope businesses in our region will step up, take the initiative and show their willingness to contribute to change by registering to attend the Autism Works event.”
Autism Works is open to all businesses, and there is no charge to attend. Booking is available at: https://autismworksjuly5th.eventbrite.co.uk.