Friday, 29 July 2011

Plain English and Attention to Detail

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. This week has seen our two Test Engineers, Dan and Chris, continue to make progress in their training towards sitting their ISEB exams while I have continued to work on the Autism Works Operational Manual, which is quite an exhaustive and fascinating task. There are parts of it that some would perhaps find to be not much more than 'monotonous company speak', but the big challenge for me though is to make it more ASC-friendly.

Part of making the company's operational procedures more autism-friendly involves, where possible, doing away with jargon or company speak and converting it to Plain English. An aspect of being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome that I often talk about when giving training for frontline services, such as the police, the legal profession and others, is how people with the condition can often be talked into 'false compliance' with statements that may not be true or into buying a product that they don't want, through 'hidden agendas' being thinly disguised by jargon. A classic example that I like to use is the Nationwide Building Society adverts featuring Mark Benton (also known for his role as maths teacher Mr Chalk), who in the roles as a manager at a rival bank tricks the customers with financial jargon, whereas Nationwide uses 'Plain English' with its customers. As it is possible that people with ASC may find themselves breaking rules unaware, not least because I have fallen into this trap in previous employment, as well as Plain English, another important aspect of developing the company's operational policies involves differentiating between intentional and unintentional, especially if a particular action related to ASC happens to offend a colleague. 

Much of what I have been doing has involved adapting standard employment policies so that they 'make sense', but one that I have had to put together from scratch is the company's Social Media Policy. As this blog has previously explored, effective use of social media plays a key part in the development of a company like Autism Works, in both generating publicity as well as playing a part in forming opinions about the company's mission. Many people with ASC appear to find online communication through E-mail or social networks a more comfortable medium of communication, but what is not always apparent to most of us, both people with ASC and people not on the autistic spectrum, is the consequences that certain posts in social networks can have, especially if they harm a client's reputation or are, at worst, libellous.

At a team meeting we have had this morning where we have talked about maximising use of social networks for different purposes, we have agreed that our top priority when communicating via social networks is what we like to sell Autism Works - attention to detail. In this case making sure that posts are checked for accuracy, including spelling mistakes.

Elsewhere Peter is on holiday for two weeks from this afternoon, but hopefully when he gets back I will have much if maybe not all of the Operational Manual drafted, so that we can take steps towards getting it approved by the Autism Works Board. In the meantime, continue to watch this space for further developments in the world of Autism Works.

Friday, 22 July 2011

All Singing, All Dancing, All Graduating!

This week at Autism Works has been an eye-opener to talent on the autistic spectrum. Though we are known for software testing and computing talent, one of the beauties of variation within the autistic spectrum is the huge range of different talents of different, unique individuals. This week, the Autism Works team was invited along to one of the best places to see and be entertained by this - the Annual ESPA Graduation Ceremony.

Held at the Tyne Journal Theatre in Newcastle, the Autism Works team joined in with ESPA's celebration of the achievements of their students as well as wishing them the best for the next stage of their lives. After the presentations, the audience, made up largely of parents, relatives and ESPA staff as well as esteemed guests including Sharon Hodgson MP, was then treated to s series of DVDs that the students had made reflecting on their time at ESPA, and how they  felt it had made a positive difference to them. The students though saved the very best of the event for the afternoon, with a set of three different performances all of a different theme, including a tribute to one of the ESPA colleges The South Hill Haunting, followed by Godfather Death and finally, a superb rendition of the musical Chicago, in which some of the ESPA staff took part alongside the students.

It was at this particular event two years ago that Peter Macdonald, the Managing Director at Autism Works, first found out about Specialisterne. Inspired by Specialisterne's success, the idea of replicating the model in the UK occurred to Peter. As I have continued to write about in this blog, we are still technically in the early stages of the company's development, but even so we have come quite some way since this moment of inspiration, particularly now that we have a good team at Autism Works, including appointing our second Test Analyst, Chris Neville-Smith, who just started with us this week and appears to be settling in nicely. With a PhD in Quantum Inorganic Chemistry and a passion for theatre and the arts, Chris adds a very fascinating dimension to the Autism Works team.

Sharon Hodgson, who enjoyed the graduation, was also thrilled to see that we had appointed two Test Analysts. You may remember from previous blog entries that Mrs Hodgson, who is MP Sunderland West and Washington and is also a Shadow Education Minister, came to visit the company earlier this year. Autism Works is grateful for her continued support. Be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works for more news of the company's development.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Operation Asperger

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. After a period of island hopping and talks, seminars and workshops from places as diverse as Guernsey to Stockton-on-Tees, my main focus this week is developing the Operations Manual for Autism Works. The purpose of the Operations Manual is to develop a set of working practices that are more Autism-friendly. Despite being on the autistic spectrum, it is a complex task.

As you may recall, much of my previous blog entries as well as what I talk about in my employment workshops, including the one I gave for Credit Suisse in Guernesy, have focused on how it is the recruitment process that many people with Asperger's Syndrome find difficult, often before they have had any opportunity to show that they are capable of performing a particular job as well as, and in many cases, better than others. However, when going through employment policies which I am adapting to Autism Works, it is also apparent that ASC is equally affected elsewhere within working practices.

Though there will be certain aspects of employment policies and employment law that will be consistent with conventional working practices, including annual leave entitlement, health and safety etc. there are some aspects that will need necessary adaptations to accommodate the needs of employees with ASC. As part of creating a 'more inclusive' workforce, what I guess we have to be careful of is that we don't, where we can avoid it, have separate procedures for employees with ASC and for people not on the autistic spectrum. 

Sections that I am currently working on include developing the appraisal and dignity at work policies. Aspects of these policies clearly need to be altered to include the needs of people with ASC. Despite being on the autistic spectrum, what makes such a task difficult in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome is that there is no right or wrong way to do it. As ASC is so individual, one method or resolution that works for one person with ASC may not work for another.

Another aspect of the Operations Manual that may present problems is looking at where it is possible for employment law, including equal opportunities policies, can sometimes collide. From previous employment, I felt that I seen this where employers, as part of their equal opportunities policies have a one-size-fits-all approach to recruitment methods, offering the same recruitment tools, including job interview questions, to all candidates. In the case of Asperger's Syndrome though, this can be seen as discriminatory in the sense that a candidate with Asperger's Syndrome may often have different needs around this. Where this could apply within the workplace is when an employee is unintentionally offended by the traits or characteristics of an individual with ASC such as abscence of or prolonged eye-contact, but in the defence of the employee with ASC, this could be perceived as discrimination towards the way they are.

Like with the recruitment process, there isn't an appropriate good practice template in existence that we have been able to access and replicate. As Autism Works is still developing as a company, we are aware that there are key milestones we are yet to achieve and as part of  attaining these milestones, chances are mistakes will be made and difficulties will be experienced. Just being aware of this though is a huge relief, as much as an Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis itself can be.

Be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to see how this stage of the company's development unfolds.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Island Hopping, Nuclear Detonation and The Autism Show

First of all, apologies for being away for a while, but before you worry (an Asperger trait), it is not because I have not been well. Instead, I can happily say that it is all very positive regarding what I have been up to over the last three weeks. 

On the subject of worrying, don't let the 'nuclear detonation' in the blog title worry you! Last month, Dan and I went to see the documentary Countdown to Zero at Tyneside Cinema, just up the road from the Autism Works office. The film looks at how the possibility of nuclear weapon usage has increased since the end of the Cold War, partly because in particular parts of the world, potatoes are supposedly guarded better, but perhaps more disturbingly, through errors in software codes. Though this is something that our testers at Autism Works could help solve, Dan didn't seem too keen on testing nuclear weapon software, not least because of the pressure of being the difference between safety and an entire city being wiped out! 

At ExCel London for the Autism Show
The last three weeks has been a busy, but highly enjoyable and rewarding, time for me in terms of talks, seminars and workshops. Despite having had to put some events on hold due to lack of funding during what are tough times for the charities sector, I have still been able to get some opportunities to raise public awareness of Asperger's Syndrome as well as brand awareness of Autism Works. Quite often, limitations of opportunities often go a long way to one making the most of opportunities and sometimes, an event itself delivers more for me in terms of what I learn from audience interaction.

Meeting Jane Asher at the Autism Show
At the Autism Show held at London's ExCel Centre near Canary Wharf, I had the privilege to listen to Jane Asher, President of the National Autistic Society, give and speech and then to meet her in person later. I was delighted to find that she had heard of Autism Works! In her speech, Jane talked about how job interviews are often a major hindrance for many people with Asperger's Syndrome, particularly as many standard interview questions are open to literal interpretation. I also caught up with Specialisterne's Laura Priestly, a former college co-ordinator at ESPA, who was inspired by Specialisterne at the same time as Peter, and was very pleased to hear that we were now in the process of taking on software testers. As I write this blog, we are in the process of appointing our second tester who looks set to start with us later this month.

Just last week, I had the fortune to visit Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, to give a series of talks, including a lunchtime seminar for Credit Suisse, a major multinational financial service provider, which has offices on the island. What made the island experience fascinating from an Asperger training perspective was that for me it was coming out of my comfort zone. Though I have previously given talks and seminars outside the UK, where Guernsey is different is that it still doesn't have any Disability Discrimination legislation. Though there are demographic reasons for this such as small population and near full-employment, if an employer sees that an applicant has a condition such as Asperger's Syndrome, Dyslexia, ADHD, they can technically just bin their application.

The demands for diligence, attention to detail and most importantly, accuracy are paramount to  a company like Credit Suisse that has an annual turnover of in excess of £14 billion. My seminar at the organisation came about through a group of their employers being parents of young people on the autistic spectrum, and were interested in any suggestions as to how to recruit skills and talent on the autistic spectrum to a company where they would be considered an asset. I was delighted to hear from one of the Credit Suisse representatives attending my seminar who said that he had had the pleasure to work with a colleague with Asperger's Syndrome and had seen how they had contributed strongly to productivity as well as being great to work with. The representative also went on to say that if he saw Asperger's Syndrome mentioned on a candidate's application, he would be thrilled.

The beautiful coastline of Herm, Channel Islands
The interest and enthusiasm that I saw in Guernsey for wanting to understand Asperger's Syndrome was considerable, not just from the corporate sector but also from their State Parliament. While in Guernsey, I also had some spare time to take a boat trip around two of the neighbouring islands Herm and Sark. After this spell of island hopping, I returned to my birthplace, Stockton-on-Tees, to give a talk for the Daisy Chain project, which supports children and young people on the autistic spectrum and their families. There was also interest among the parents who attended as regards what would happen when their children on the autistic spectrum grew up, which is hopefully, fulfilling lives.

In the meantime, Dan is continuing to progress well with his ISEB Foundation Certificate and we look forward to welcoming our new Trainee Test Analyst later this month. Be sure to stay tuned to New Aspie Horizons for news of further developments and adventures.