Friday 23 December 2011

Boy's Weekend & Season's Greetings

As a special treat for Christmas, I am giving readers of this blog a special Christmas present of a second entry this week, an early present for the big day arrives on Sunday.

In my last entry, I mentioned that the festive cheer didn’t end with the feature for Tyne Tees and the carols service, as there was something else that came early this Christmas, which also reflects one of the social aspects that we had hoped to develop at Autism Works. Instead of writing about common themes in this entry such as reasonable adjustments , recruitment processes, software testing techniques etc. to get us all into festive spirit I am going to focus on the social aspects of working at Autism Works, especially since our employee base has grown since this time last year.

Having experienced high-level social isolation as well as rejection, something that I have found during my adventure with Autism Works is that one of the best ways out of these two states for many people with Asperger’s Syndrome is through access to employment that not only matches their skills and qualifications, but just as importantly, where they feel included and valued. Last week, for the first time, I went on a ‘boy's weekend’ to Prague in the Czech Republic with a colleague from Autism Works, Daniel, who joined us as a software test analyst earlier in the year. The Czech Republic is famous for beer, but before anyone gets excited, for Daniel and I it wasn’t that kind of boy's weekend!

For Daniel, the trip to Prague was a big step, as it was the first time that he had been overseas other than with his family, opening him up to a new world, while for me it is something that I am largely used to. Something that we both had in common on this trip though was that it was our first time in Prague for both of us. Despite a bit of a false start when Dan inadvertently found out that the Post Office had given him the wrong currency, giving him Danish Kronas rather than Czech Karunas, once we got it sorted we both thoroughly enjoyed our time there. I had been told beforehand that Prague was supposed to be quite spectacular at Christmas, and indeed the city lived up to such suggestions. The Christmas Markets in the Old Town Square were beautiful.

Christmas Markets in the Old Town Square, Prague
While in Prague, we met with a friend of mine who lives in Prague, Barbora Studihiradova, with whom I had done the Routeburn Trek in New Zealand back in 2010. 

Me, Daniel and Barbora at the Czech Inn Hostel, Prague
While doing this trek, little did I know that back home, Autism Works was little more than a twinkle in the eyes of Peter Macdonald and Lesley Lane, Chief Executive of ESPA. Little over a year later, the inception and progression of Autism Works has provided me with a job that I enjoy and where, most importantly, I feel that my quality of life has improved dramatically, as I highlighted in the Tyne Tees feature, as well as introducing me to new people, including Daniel, to whom Autism Works and ESPA through giving him his Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis has introduced to a completely new world after a period of personal difficulties.

The Routeburn Trek , New Zealand, 2010. Barbora is standing next to me to my right behind the sign
All staff at Autism Works as well as all those who have been involved with the company would like to wish everyone a wonderful Christmas and all the best for 2012, when this blog will resume again.

Season's Greetings Everyone!

Following on from our Tyne Tees feature, Peter and I did an interview for BBC Radio Newcastle this week, which you can listen to clicking here Jump to 37.16 

Monday 19 December 2011

Tyne Tees and Christmas Carols

Seasons Greetings and welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. You may be wondering why you are getting a blog entry from me on Monday rather than on Friday is because Christmas came early last week for Autism Works!

Last week was one of the most interesting and exciting weeks that I have had at Autism Works, as we made it onto regional television! A feature about Autism Works was shown on ITV Tyne Tees' North East Tonight, in which I talked about difficulties that people with Asperger's Syndrome often experience when trying to obtain employment as well as the effect that it has on their quality of life, before later talking about how, at the same time, people with Asperger's Syndrome can make really good employees if given a role that suits their skills and abilities. Meanwhile, Peter went over the statistics of adults on the autistic spectrum in the UK not in employment as well as the effects that this has on the public purse, costing the UK over £2 billion per year, a hugely unnecessary cost when one considers that many of the 85 per cent of adults on the autistic spectrum are not only willing to work, but also often have a lot of unused skills and abilities to bring to the marketplace.

Paul Shattock, ESPA's Chairman and President of the World Autism Organisation (for whom Peter and I did a presentation for at the Stadium of Light in December), then went on to say how vital initiatives such as Autism Works are with so many more children and young people now being diagnosed with ASC much earlier in life for when they reach adulthood. If you missed it, you can view this feature on ITV Player by clicking here

While the feature was being screened, I was at a Christmas Carols Service at St Mary's Church in Newcastle. The service was hosted by Alfie Joey from BBC Radio Newcastle, on whose show I have had the privilege of appearing twice, including to review the stage version of Rainman two years ago. You could certainly see how much Alfie loves Christmas in the way he hosted the service so enthusiastically and I was delighted when he recognised the Autism Works logo on my shirt! 

With Alfie Joey from BBC Radio Newcastle
The appropriately-named Inspiration Choir gave a great performance of our favourite carols with the audience joining in. In between the signing, there were some readings from local media personalities, including television presenter and author John Grundy, who gave a reading from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, bringing the story to life wonderfully well before Hannah Bayman, from BBC Look North's Weather Team gave a very passionate reading from Luke after, earlier in the week, doing the Look North weather forecast on ice skates! 
With Hannah Bayman from the BBC Look North Weather Team

All the proceeds raised from the service went to Save the Children. But the festive cheer didn't end there - far from it. In keeping with the spirit of Christmas, I am offering readers a special treat this week with a second entry later in the week. Stay tuned to see what came next. In the meantime, Merry Christmas everybody!

Autism Works would like to thank John Hart from Sunderland Software City and Derek Proud from Tyne Tees for their work in giving Autism Works airtime on Tyne Tees. 

Friday 9 December 2011

Autism in Mind Birthday Celebrations, the Olympics and Euro 2012

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. last Friday, Peter and I attended an event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Autism in Mind (AIM), a Sunderland-based support group whose mission is to both support people with ASC and their families and raise awareness of ASC. Through my work, I have had the privilege of visiting and working with many autism charities, and something that many of them have in common is that they have originated from the hard work and dedication of families affected by ASC.

When AIM and many other regional autism charities started out at around the close of the last century, which was also around the time of my own diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, awareness of Asperger's Syndrome was, for the main part, minimal. Ten years on though, we have seen some quite remarkable advances in ASC awareness, to the point where people with considerable influence at regional and national level, including councillors and members of parliament, have taken notice. That this is possible has largely been down to dedicated individuals such as Carole and Terry Rutherford who were instrumental in starting AIM.

In 2002, when AIM was in its infancy, Terry too a 2,500 mile trip around the UK collecting 6500 signatures for the group's Call for Action campaign. This campaign was the used to petition parliament for change. As well Terry at AIM, Kevin Healey, Chair of Staffordshire Adult Autistic Society, has also played a huge role in obtaining signatures to put before parliament to campaign for much-needed change in relation to ASC. For all his tireless work for the cause, we are delighted at Autism Works to hear that Kevin has been selected to carry the Olympic Torch during its 80-day tour of the UK before the London Olympics open.

Though thanks to the efforts of such dedicated groups or people, ASC awareness is so much stronger than it was when AIM began, there is still much to be done. One of the next steps is to raise further ASC awareness within employers across all sectors - public, private and third. Hopefully, I can contribute to this with both Autism Works and through the Sunderland Autism Working Group's Employment Sub-Group, which I have taken up a role within to help plan an event to bring together a range of major employers within the region to promote the benefits of employing people with ASC.

On the theme of sport, I sat through the razmataz of the draw for Euro 2012 which takes place in the Ukraine and Poland just before the Olympics open in London around this time last week, waiting to see who would be playing who in the first round. England were drawn into, what I felt was, potentially a tricky group with France, Sweden and the co-hosts the Ukraine. I will be supporting England at heart as it is my home nation, but I am not expecting anything special given their largely pathetic record at major international tournaments. Personally, I think that one of two things might happen, that they either have as poor a campaign as they had at the 2010 World Cup or they may uncover a new star that inspires good performances for a change, perhaps like Paul Gascoigne emerged as a new star the last time England enjoyed an extensive run in a tournament on foreign soil at the 1990 World Cup - such great memories!

To see how awareness of ASC continues to unfold, be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works.

Many congratulations to Kevin Healey on being selected as an Olympic Torch Bearer

Friday 25 November 2011

Bids and Training

This week at Autism Works has seen me giving some training at Connexions in Sunderland and starting on putting together another funding bid, this time to Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneer Fund. Readers of this blog will be familiar with the themes of 'coming out of your comfort zone' and 'thinking outside the box'. From the training session that I coordinated with Connexions, both myself and the Connexions staff agreed that these two themes play a key part in understanding Asperger's Syndrome as well as coping with it, including tailoring recruitment tools to accommodate people with Asperger's Syndrome.

My last entry was largely about how people with Asperger's Syndrome spend much time operating outside their comfort zone. In addition to this, I also often find, and chances are that those with Asperger's Syndrome reading this entry may perhaps also feel this, that to function effectively it can take quite a bit of effort to think outside the 'Asperger Bubble', which to some extent can influence thoughts and actions, as well as being able to read other people. But when doing an activity with the Connexions staff on forming suitable questions to ask candidates with Asperger's Syndrome in a job interview, the staff were first to admit just how hard it is, as it takes a lot of thinking outside the 'professional bubble' that they are used to working within to make such adjustments.

Readers may also remember that two sample interview questions that we like to talk about have have a good chuckle over at Autism Works when we talk about this subject are:

How would you describe yourself as a 'good communicator' at all levels?

What sets you apart from the other candidates as to why you are the best person for the job?

As I am sure most will agree, they are both pretty stupid questions, not least because the first question contains the vague statement 'good communicator'. When I asked the staff about how they would rephrase these questions so that they made more sense to a candidate with Asperger's Syndrome, the first thing that they admitted was how hard it was. It is particularly hard as they have to think from the perspective of the Asperger's Syndrome candidate, and how they would interpret and answer such questions. Suggestions that they came up with included explaining what they meant by terms such as 'good communicator' or 'good team player'. Though these suggestions are helpful, what it is often best to do where possible is to make interview questions as specific to the job that the candidate has applied for as possible.

Often, when talking about previous job interview experience, in hindsight most of us seem to agree that many of the questions we have been asked in such situations are irrelevant to the job we have applied for. Often, for a person with Asperger's Syndrome learning how to succeed at a job interview is the hard part, more so than learning how to do a job. An analogy that Grayson, our Test Manager, used was how when you are 'learning to drive', you are learning to pass your driving test more so than drive on the road.

I am progressing steadily with pulling the company's Operational Manual together, including the company's recruitment policy and I am also revisiting previous funding applications that we have put in to help prepare for the bid to Deloitte. Elsewhere, now that it is coming towards the end of November, I am starting to prepare for Christmas as well as planning on entering Mastermind again. Be sure to watch this space to see how this progresses.

Friday 18 November 2011

Beginner's Mind and Pudsey Bear

Last week, I talked about coming out of comfort zones, something which many people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel that they spend much of their time doing. This theme has been talked about quite a lot in Asperger forums within the social networks this week, with one comment suggesting that because people with Asperger's Syndrome spend so much time operating outside their comfort zone that it creates low-level anxiety that can result in a weaker immune system. In this entry, I am going to go a little further looking at how coming out of your comfort zone can develop Beginners Mind, a useful strategy when learning new tasks.

In relation to Asperger tendencies, including with the positive aspects of the condition such as curiosity in searching for information and good memory to store knowledge, facts and figures, it is often so difficult to put it aside for a while, to the extent that one may loose touch with what it is like to be new to something. As readers of this blog will know, I have personally found mindfulness practice, including meditation and basic yoga helpful for this. But even within such techniques, I have found that it can be easy to stay with a practice formula which becomes one's comfort zone to the extent that there are different elements of practice that get lost. 

Over the last week though, I have found that it is helpful to explore the practice from a beginners' perspective by revisiting techniques that I don't practice as regularly as others. One of the advantages that mindfulness practice has to help develop the refreshing quality of beginners mind is that there is a huge range of techniques, including over 80,000 known movements in Yoga, so there is plenty of scope for revisiting enabling different and new experiences. Just by revisiting a technique or movement that one practices perhaps infrequently,  we can experience what it is like to start or attempt something that is unusual or new to us.

Since working on our first contract at Autism Works, uncharted territory for the company, it has brought some new tasks and duties to my role as Operational Manager, including processing costs of sales spreadsheets using Microsoft Excel. When approaching learning new or different tasks, applying beginners' mind not only helps one be present with learning the task, but also helps one to un-learn methods and put any knowledge and expertise aside where necessary, so that old habits don't interfere too much. 

Where I find beginner's mind particularly helpful though is when I am giving training as much as when I am receiving it, which helps me when understanding the perspectives of who I am providing training for much better. When one has done something for a number of years and accumulates a high volume of knowledge and experience, this can be become a handicap when it cuts one off from new experiences and understandings of a particular subject, including Asperger's Syndrome. Approaching the subject from a beginners perspective often allows me to learn as much from the audience I am training as they learn from me.

Today is Children in Need day, which reminds me of something that I used to get a lot of fun out of doing in my previous job - dressing up as Pudsey Bear! Disguised as Pudsey, I would scour Durham County Hall with two students from Durham Trinity School for donations, and we broke the record quite a few times! When people asked who was in the bear suit, the students would say that this this is Pudsey Bear himself, so that I could get away with making rude gestures at the Leader of the Council and Chief Executive! Unfortunately, at Autism Works we don't have a bear suit, though I have done my bit this year purchasing a BBC Look North Weather Calendar, the proceeds of which will go to a very worthy course. If you would like to purchase one of these calendars with some lovely images of the North East of England, click on Pudsey below:

Applying beginner's mind may also hopefully help me with writing future blog entries, to find some relevant new approaches. Be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works for more refreshed approaches and to tune into Pudsey on the BBC tonight.

Autism Works would also like to thank everybody who has donated or been involved in fundraising for  Children in Need 2011 

Friday 11 November 2011

Testing and coming out of Comfort Zones

This week has been quite a testing week for me and the team at Autism Works. Using the word ‘testing’ seems quite appropriate working for a software testing firm! When I say testing I don’t necessarily mean that it has been a difficult week, but rather a learning curve in that I am learning new processes within my capacity as Operational Manager. In one sense though, when new duties are beginning to find their way into my role, it gives me a feeling of how my job is developing, as the company grows.
Despite the extensive mindfulness practice that I have undertaken over the last two years including meditation practice and basic yoga, it still sometimes takes me quite some effort to come out of my comfort zone in working environments and I have in particular noticed my tendency to ‘shy away’ from numbers! This tendency perhaps partly relates to me not being used to working with numbers as much as I am with letters and words as well as being hopeless at maths when I was at school, contrary to the stereotype that people with Asperger’s Syndrome are good at maths!

This week, I have been learning how to do Cost of Sales spreadsheets to calculate the profitability of the work we have been carrying out. From my previous blog entries, you may remember me talking about how developments in history rarely occur in isolation. Such processes are also visible in the development of an enterprise, especially if the enterprise is one that is breaking relatively new ground like Autism Works. Acquiring our first contracts from clients has seen us adapting to different ways of working in line with the clients’ requirements as well as bringing me new tasks, for which I have to learn new processes and, in some cases, unlearn old habits. The combination of learning and un-learning helps one revisit task and duties that may not have been undertaken in a while, from where skills so often get lost.
As well as shying away from numbers, I have also noticed that I have a tendency to procrastinate over software packages that I am not familiar with, largely because I don’t use them as much as others particularly Microsoft Excel. I am confident though that the more I use it regularly, I will become more accustomed to it. As the cost of sales spreadsheet that I am working on is our first, so it is a process where we will very likely have to learn from mistakes to get it right for our business.
Elsewhere, since my last blog entry, I have been in situations where I am largely within my comfort zone, giving training on Asperger’s Syndrome to staff at ESPA, which ironically involves interactive activities where staff are encouraged to come out of their comfort zone to experience  what it may be like to have Asperger’s Syndrome, which is often quite fun! In the meantime, stay tuned to New Aspie Horizons for the latest developments in the world of Autism Works.
Autism Works staff would like to take this opportunity to pay our respects for Remeberance Sunday this coming weekend. 

Friday 28 October 2011

Silly Questions and Going Up Mountains

What a busy week this has been at Autism Works, with software testing work we have been doing for contracts we have had coming in, as well as working on a major funding bid. Though 'busy' can sound like hard work, don't confuse it with the fun it can bring.

In among the software testing work that our Test Analysts are progressing with, which is done in a language that makes as much sense to me as Klingon, I have been doing some preparation work for some training that I am doing for the Connexions service next week. Preparation work, especially putting together Powerpoint presentations, I often find fun. In relation to the subject that I am developing the training around, something I found very enjoyable was looking for questions asked at job interviews that can be open to literal interpretation by a candidate with Asperger's Syndrome, or interview questions that either don't make sense or are just plain stupid, to give Connexions staff an idea of the difficulties that a candidate with Asperger's Syndrome can have during job interviews, before exploring reasonable adjustments.

When giving a seminar with Tony Attwood back in 2007, something that I remember him talking about was how the best comedy was the world seen through different eyes, including Asperger eyes. In the case of Asperger's Syndrome though, comedy can also be the result of doing what we are told quite literally or just through being comfortable with the truth. This can also apply to job interview questions. A friend of mine also diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome said that a difficulty she experienced at job interviews was being able to form a 'dishonest' answer, particularly when asked 'why do you want to work for us?'. The standard answer she said that she would give was along the lines of 'your company has a lot of drive and potential for growth', while a more honest answer she would give would be 'because I have been made redundant and need the money'!  

The Autumn 2011 edition of The Autism File includes an in depth interview with me in which I talk about how open or abstract questions can present problems for candidates with Asperger's Syndrome as well as how employers need to be flexible within their recruitment procedures to capture the unique skills and talent that candidates with Asperger's Syndrome can bring. In the interview I also talk about the development of Autism Works, including what we have managed to achieve so far in our relatively short history as well as what we hope to achieve. 

Interwoven with this interview is a feature article I have written about my experiences of trekking up mountains, focusing particularly on how I have found experience of constantly changing weather and conditions helpful in coping with change. Change in various shapes and forms is hard for many people with Asperger's Syndrome to cope with, including in working environments. What we must also realise though is that when, faced with change, is that before we can learn new ways we need to unlearn old ways. As much change occurs as a result of circumstances both social and natural, one cannot control it. Just by changing our relationship with it though, including how we think about it, can enable us to see the meaningfulness in it, rather than becoming stressed or anxious through resisting it. 

At Autism Works, we have had some really positive feedback about the company from this interview. I have been asked to do some more writing for future editions of The Autism File which should bring Autism Works more positive publicity. In the meantime though, to keep up to date with developments at Autism Works, stay tuned to this blog.  

Friday 21 October 2011

Inter-connected Technologies and Needs

Welcome back to adventures of Autism Works. First of all, apologies for the delay between entries as I have been away on leave. After my work at Daisy Chain and the success of the World Autism Organisation Conference, I have had a week's break in Italy, before resuming my duties at Autism Works, where I have been reviewing the company's operational procedures that I have been in the process of drafting.

Far from being just a welcome break, my visit to Italy was a fascinating cultural journey, seeing a huge breadth of recorded history stretching from the dominance of the Roman Empire under Constantine in Rome through to the Renaissance in Florence. Seeing such a range of history during a visit is fascinating not just to see the individual breakthroughs in art and science themselves, but also to see such events in contexts. Historical events, art movements and scientific breakthroughs very rarely occur in isolation. Often previous developments play a part, which allow for discoveries to be made by those who can make use or build upon these developments. In Florence, I visited the science museum where I saw the telescope with which Galileo discovered Jupiter's four largest moons, a discovery which had a profound impact on advances in astronomy, changing our perceptions of the solar system. Galilieo though didn't invent the telescope, but instead it was supposedly developed by spectacle-makers in the Netherlands who in turn built upon methods of glass-making developed in 13th-century Italy.

Far from being a series of isolated occurrences, history, including technological development is inter-connected. The Italian Renaissance spawned further historical periods such as the the Dutch Golden Age, which saw further developments in including the microscope. In turn, Dutch technology gradually found its way into England after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 (when William of Orange invaded by invitation), which would later contribute to the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, in contemporary times, those who have followed Autism Works since its inception will no doubt appreciate that the company has far from developed in isolation, not least as it is built upon already existing practice, but also technological developments and needs have played a strong part. 

With developments in software moving so fast in a competitive world (some may even argue that it is moving too fast), there is increasing demand for better-tested software products to reach the market quicker. Just like the developments of visual aids helped Galileo see more details in the heavens beyond the 'fixed stars' visible to the naked eye on a clear night, the positive traits of autism allow Autism Works to see detail that may otherwise be obscrued by the working practices of software developers, just like an independent proof-reader of texts for publication, including this blog, may see spelling and grammatical errors that may be obscured by the writers' creativity. This approach will also be helpful when reviewing the Autism Works Operational Procedures. There are two deliberate spelling mistakes and a grammatical error in this entry - did you manage to spot them? Answers on a postcard!

As well as seeing so much history and culture as well as variation in Italian cuisine, I was also fortunate to see Pope Benedict XVI address the crowd during his Wednesday audience in Rome's St Peter's Square. In the meantime, be sure to stay tuned to New Aspie Horizons for further inter-connected developments in the world of Autism Works.

Friday 23 September 2011

First Impressions, Daisy Chain and the World Autism Organisation

This week at Autism Works has been a busy yet exciting one, not least because I have enjoyed some time visiting different locations and giving talks, but most interestingly I have had the privilege to find out about different approaches to autism from some fascinating presentations from people from places as diverse as Kuwait, Spain etc. Such events are great for exchange of ideas, as well as other organisations learning from us at Autism Works, there is also much we can learn from then.

Earlier in the week, I was speaking at the Daisy Chain Project in Stockton-on-Tees. As readers may remember, I gave a talk at Daisy Chain earlier in the year to their members, but this time though it was the Friends of Daisy Chain, largely made up of businesses that support the charity. It was interesting to hear about why businesses support an autism charity. One of the representatives was a Financial Advisor who became aware of Daisy Chain through a client who had a child with autism, and felt that becoming a friend of the charity would be a good way to 'give something back'. 

After I spoke, I then had the opportunity to hear a talk by Sue Donnelly, an internationally renowned image consultant, who talked about first impressions. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I tend not to place a high degree of importance on personal image, as I tend to focus more on the content and presentation of my work. Sue's approach to image and first impressions though, like my approach to Asperger's Syndrome, is largely unconventional in that she likes to focus on how you can make a good first impression by being yourself, which can be done quite easily. I later asked Sue for her honest opinion as an image consultant as to how I come across and I was pleased to hear that she felt I came across as 'authentic', who I am as I am, which is really just being me! I was almost like seeing myself from the outside, which was an interesting experience.

Quite often, conferences and events often deliver more than just their itinerary. The Daisy Chain event certainly did this and then two days later, the World Autism Organisation (WAO) Conference did this on a huge scale, in terms of what it opened me up to as to how Autism is understood throughout the world, not just in what we call the western world, but also in places such as South Africa, Namibia and Sudan. Representatives from these nations came to the conference to share good practice. Though there is much good practice in autism in the UK that they can take home, there is also a lot that we can learn from them, particularly from countries where provision for autism is minimal. Affected families in these countries have very little, but often make good use of what they have. 

It was also a privilege to hear remarkable stories from autism parents including Samira Al-Saad, founder of the Kuwait Autism Centre and an innovator in autism and learning, Isabel Bayonas, founder of the Association of Parents of Autistic Children in Spain and Polly Tommey, editor-in-chief of The Autism File, who gave a particularly inspirational speech. When interviewed on the local news later, WAO Chairman Paul Shattock mentioned that as many as one in six of us has a first degree relative (parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, cousin) on the autistic spectrum. As well as this, there are also many people who know of someone who is either affected by autism or who has a relative on the autistic spectrum through social circles, as seen at Daisy Chain. Though there was much good news that came from the WAO conference, there is still plenty of work to be done in raising understanding of autism, in addition to awareness. Most of us are familiar with the word 'autism' itself, but many still don't quite understand what it is.

Daisy Chain, who have asked me to do some more work for them, have for now, convinced me to attempt to climb Kilimanjaro to raise funds for them in 2013. I have been impressed with how they have managed to attract support from outside the autistic community with the Friends of Daisy Chain aspect. This is important as autism doesn't just affect those on the spectrum but also others around them, not least because we breathe the same air! Be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to see how this develops.

Friday 16 September 2011

Refreshed Approaches and Lunarticks

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. After a week's meditation retreat, I feel very refreshed. The refreshing feeling that I brought back from Powys, Wales, I feel has had some significant benefits for certain aspects of my work at Autism Works, especially for next week's World Autism Organisation conference at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland, where Peter Macdonald and I will be speaking about Autism Works. Hopefully, the results of this conference will be the opposite of Sunderland AFC's start to the season, which has so far been unsuccessful with only two points from four games.

The meditation retreat at the Samatha Centre was a really relaxing experience, despite the rainy weather! This was my second full retreat here, but I felt that there was something different about the effects this time. When doing something like this for the first time, one is never quite sure what to expect. As I knew what the expect in terms of practice levels this time, I felt that I was able to experience further effects, especially feeling refreshed after each meditation practice. After each practice, everything seemed to become much clearer. I was able to realise who I am in relation to the interconnections of my surroundings, almost as if I had just returned home from travelling and noticed details my new experience had enabled me to notice.

Such refreshing perspectives are often very helpful when having to learn processes that one is trained in and, in some cases, become 'conditioned' in to the extent that it becomes automatic pilot. Such an approach to recruitment processes, not just within Autism Works or similar organisations, including our inspirations Specialisterne and Aspiritech, is needed across employers universally, to enable people with ASC access to employment within a wide range of roles, not just within IT. Practices that we have developed at Autism Works, some of which we will be talking about at the Stadium of Light next week, once established can hopefully be incorporated among employers where possible to provide flexibility towards candidates with an ASC, which could also be another service that Autism Works can provide as well as software testing.

To enable this, many aspects of conventional recruitment practice need to be un-learned. Too often, the focus is candidates with ASC needing training or coaching on how to adapt to conventional recruitment practices, including job interviews. Though this may be necessary up to a point, one has to  draw the line somewhere, so that people on the spectrum don't feel that they have to be actors/actresses to manage a recruitment process. People with ASC are often described and even stereotyped as being 'rigid' or 'inflexible', but often, it helps to look at where conventional approaches in education and employment are perhaps inflexible towards people with ASC.

Flexible approaches within businesses both in recruitment processes and in the working environment are important not just to accommodate people with ASC, but also to enable pooling of skills, abilities and ideas which ultimately enhance output. Earlier in the week, I had the privilege to listen to Adam Hart-Davis, author and broadcaster, at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society. Hart-Davis' fascinating lecture was about about the Lunar Society of Birmingham, or the 'Lunarticks', as they called themselves. The Lunarticks, whose members included the likes of James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Josiah Wedgewood (founder of Wedgewood Pottery) and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), met every full moon during the late 18th century when the Industrial Revolution was in motion. Hart Davis showed how some of its members were good inventors while others were good entrepreneurs, a fusion of which allowed key stages of the Industrial Revolution to develop. Similarly, a fusion of people with ASC and people who don't have ASC working together can enhance output in the marketplace.

Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to see how the conference goes next week!

We would also like to say a huge thank you to Sumanjeet Sandhu, our student intern from Newcastle University, who finishes her placement with us at Autism Works today, for all her hard work and creativity raising our profile through the social media networks. We wish her well for her future, which we hope will be a bright one.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Training and Meditation Retreat

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. First of all, apologies that there hasn't been a blog for the last two weeks. This has been due to a combination of being in training one week and then giving training the next. I guess this shows the degree of variation that my role involves. It is a nice balance to learn new and useful skills as well as pass on knowledge and experience to aid the learning of ESPA's students. Tomorrow, I am off on meditation retreat for a week at the Samatha Centre in Powys, Wales.

One of my new responsibilities as Operations Manager is to manage the petty cash. ESPA's staff have introduced me to the system that they use for recording such small expenses, and were quick to notice that we go through quite a lot of milk! With a little practice, I feel that I have managed to get the hang of it. It is often easy to see new duties or responsibilities as an extra burden, but for me, doing this task is a good way to 'switch off' from my main tasks of continuing with the Operational Manual, before revisiting it from a refreshed perspective, similar to what I will hopefully find from when I come back from meditation retreat in a week's time.

The following week, I gave a lecture at Sunderland University as part of ESPA's training week, which was a fun experience. Prior to my part, Peter gave a talk about the Databridge project, an online system being implemented at ESPA where information can be recorded digitally, thus minimising the use of paper. Peter mentioned that he had given the same talk two years ago, before I started at Autism Works, and he asked the audience if they were there two years ago and just about everyone put their hands up. He then said that they would probably find my talk more interesting and entertaining providing I didn't mention Sooty or Timmy Mallett! I found Peter's talk entertaining and quite innovative for someone who wasn't there two years ago, especially with some of the things that ESPA staff can record on Databridge of observations on individual student's learning. Such a system could also be used effectively when looking at reasonable adjustments for employees at Autism Works.

The talk on the databridge project by Peter then fed effectively into my part. Often, when talking about Asperger's Syndrome in education, I focus on how effective observation is often helpful in being able to find student strengths as well as weaknesses to be aware of. Such detail can be recorded onto the Databridge system so that when different members of staff are working with an individual student, they have the necessary information at hand in case anything occurs, including understanding why a particular student may react in such a way. A problem that I had and many others growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome in mainstream school no doubt had was that different teachers would often see two or maybe three students in one. Teachers of the student's stronger subject may see the student as 'gifted' while teachers of their weaker subjects may see the student as 'backward'.

My next blog entry will come when I return from meditation retreat. Rather than a break from work and from my normal life, the retreat is a way of stepping back from the flow, detaching myself from the constraints and responsibilities that I am used to. Hopefully, when I come back I will be able to approach my duties at Autism Works from a refreshed perspective, including being able to see detail that I may have missed through becoming caught up in responsibility, which will hopefully enhance the upcoming conferences speeches I have later this month, including the World Autism Organisation (WAO) Conference at the Stadium of Light. To find out more about this, please visit the conference's official site clicking here 

The WAO conference will also give us the chance to learn about developments in adult autism services in places as diverse as Latin America, South Africa and the Arab world. There may well be some things from such diverse cultures that will benefit Autism Works, as much as we may have something that could help them. Stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works to find out how this unfolds!

Friday 12 August 2011

Fine-Tuning Health and Safety

Continuing my task of putting together the Operational Manual for Autism Works, this week I have been focusing on the company's Health and Safety policy and procedures, which covers fire safety, risk assessment and hazard identification. It is often thought that when putting together a set of such procedures, that once they are written and in place, that's it, end of project. But in relation to the needs of employees with autism and not least regarding how quickly technology is moving on and how working practices are ever-changing, it is anything but complete, but rather ongoing.

One of the challenges that policy-makers are often faced with when looking at developing services for people with ASC is that because ASC is so individual regarding needs and in the case of providing sustainable employment, reasonable adjustments, it becomes difficult to standardise practice, thus making the task complicated. What is especially complex about this particular task that I am working on though that there is very little in the way of good practice or templates in existence that we can replicate or learn from. Hopefully though, we can produce a model of practice from which others can replicate elsewhere, to enable access to the jobs market for so many people with ASC in the UK and throughout the world, as well as  bring unique skills to the marketplace.

As well as being ongoing, development of good practice doesn't occur in isolation. When putting together the operational procedures, I am finding it helpful to do it alongside ESPA's existing procedures, while at the same time, 'fine-tuning' it to fit the needs of staff members of ASC where necessary, while also bringing in tools from some other existing practices out there including NAS Prospects. Though in relation to how I am affected by Asperger's Syndrome, I find that I am able to memorise almost word-for-word much of the policies, what is difficult though is linking it together, but I am confident though that I am getting there.

Developing good practice by pooling together resources through multi-agency working will also be one of the themes that will be addressed at the 3rd National Conference on Adolescence to Adulthood with Autism next month. This is where the government and a variety of other agencies involved in service delivery need to take on board the recommendations within the Autism Act to ensure that services for people with ASC are planned and developed effectively through multi-agency working, including sharing and building upon good practice in existence, so that services aren't put in place, albeit with the best of intentions, but don't deliver. 

Be sure to 'fine-tune' in to this blog for further news from the world of Autism Works.

Friday 5 August 2011

Holiday Season

It is often said in the media industry that August is 'silly season' as far as newsworthy items go, which explains why local papers and news broadcasts this time of year tend fill up column inches and broadcast space with very trivial matters, including disputes over six bricks. At Autism Works  though, we try to see the 'silly season' as an opportunity to undertake tasks that normally pass us by during busier periods.

It feels so much quieter with Peter, the Managing Director, being away enjoying the remoteness of the Orkney Islands. Yes, it's his turn to do some island hopping now! However, to keep our followers interested and to show that there is much going on at Autism Works, we have started doing a daily post on the Autism Works Facebook wall, of any items related to autism, Asperger's Syndrome and software testing. We are taking it in turns to do choose and post items which hopefully our followers will find both interesting and entertaining.

When I first started working at Autism Works, Peter made it known to me that one of his favourite sites on Facebook was Artists and Autism. Artists and Autism is a Facebook group dedicated to raising awareness of autism through the arts. Those of you reading this blog who have visited or 'liked' this inspiring site on Facebook will know that there are some fantastic images here, and we are delighted that the page's admin Jeff Kellen has so kindly given us the green light to link images from Artists and Autism to the Autism Works Facebook page. Based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Jeff also helps adults with autism and Asperger's Syndrome find and maintain employment. You can read Jeff's inspiring story This Shell of Mine on the Autism Works Facebook wall.

Though it is felt by some that Facebook and other social networking sites have a lot to answer for, but when used responsibly, they can provide an outlet to express creativity, especially for those who are perhaps unable to do it in more conventional ways. Artists and Autism is a great example of where Facebook comes into its own, enabling people on the autistic spectrum to express their creativity as well as invite the world to see what people on the autistic spectrum can do. In Jeff's words, it is a way for people on the autistic spectrum to 'come out of their shell'.

I have continued working on the Autism Works Operational Manual this week, but in the meantime, look out for more wall posts next week including some images from Artists with Autism, as well as any further developments during the holiday season.

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.

Friday 10 June 2011

Spreading Brand Awareness Down Under

Welcome back to Autism Works. After a busy week and, at times, confusing I have finally managed to submit our bid to the Adult and Community Learning Fund for a grant to cover training costs for Autism Works' first two trainee software test analysts. Most interestingly this week though, we have had a visitor from Australia and a regular follower of this blog Garry Burge.

An active advocate for Asperger's Syndrome in Australia, Garry and I first 'met' in 1999 via the E-mailing list University Students with Asperger's Syndrome formerly run by Clare Sainsbury (author of the book Martian in the Playground). Twelve years on, Garry is determined for the Autism Works model to be replicated in Australia. Though we are still in the process of getting Autism Works off the ground in the UK, it certainly won't hurt to spread our brand awareness internationally, in which Garry, with his passion for social media use can play a part, together with the creative flair that our Marketing Intern from Newcastle University Sumanjeet has brought to Autism Works, can hopefully help us to win contracts from software development companies.

To sell our technical services in the UK and overseas, we are focusing on both the unique abilities that adults with an ASC can bring to software testing and also that, not being a software development company, we are able to look at and test software from an independent perspective, which can often be more effective than companies testing their own software. Using another mindfulness analogy, we so often find ourselves carrying out tasks on 'automatic pilot' because we get lost in the working practices of the organisation. Like with Asperger's Syndrome, when we see things through a system, or in the case of Asperger's Syndrome, a set of diagnostic criteria, it can condition us to the extent that we often 'miss' certain details. Similarly, such minor errors within software can often go amiss when doing it from the template or system in which the software is designed.

Such outside-the-box thinking can take quite some effort, but opening up to the way that people with Asperger's Syndrome think can often enable it, as Grayson has found out from the Awareness Training course that he has just completed this week and I have found out from the funding bid I have been working on. Being a learning grant, the Adult and Community Learning Fund is different to previous bids that I have worked on in the sense that we need to sell our application  on the training aspect of Autism Works, the ISEB Foundation Certificate, which is an industry-recognised qualification. When you have been used to writing bids in a particular way, you often forget to review it through the eyes of those who allocate the grants.

Elsewhere, Dan is continuing to make excellent progress with the new Autism Works website, including linking this blog to it. In the meantime, continue to watch this space for more developments at Autism Works.

Friday 3 June 2011

Personal Progress and Team Working

This week at Autism Works has seen me continue working on the funding bids and also working on an evaluation form for the Department of Health about my experience at Autism Works, focusing on what personal benefits working with Autism Works has brought me. This questionnaire also ties in nicely with an interview that I have been doing for The Autism File magazine.

Much of the employee-focused questions on the Department of Health's questionnaire are about whether or not I feel that my skills and confidence levels have risen courtesy of the project. Despite the challenges that this role has at times presented, particularly the continual adjustments that I have found myself having to adapt to as well as having to learn new skills, I have been very fortunate to have had the support to enable this. For the main part, I can happily say that I have grown in confidence since I started working at Autism Works back in September 2010. Where much of the confidence has come from is knowing that I am involved with an organisation that has the potential to make huge differences to people's lives, not just people on the autistic spectrum themselves, but also their family/carers.

As regards personal skills, now that the Autism Works team is starting to grow with Grayson coming on board and Dan Cottrell, there is much more scope for me to develop my team-working skills. One of the most fascinating aspects of team-working is that there is much that I can learn working with others as much as there is that others can learn from working with me. Grayson seems to have picked up quite a bit about Asperger's Syndrome from working with me and Dan, while I am beginning to pick up more about IT and the terminology involved in software testing from Grayson. Grayson's Asperger horizons look set to be broadened further next week when he attends the Autism Awareness training course organised by ESPA Training. Who knows, by the time he completes it, he may even feel more comfortable in the Asperger world like Peter!

We have also had a visit from Karl Hardy, ESPA's Finance Director and Company Secretary for Autism Works, this week who has kindly provided us with some spreadsheets for one of our funding bids, hopefully we will get something this time - fingers crossed! Next week sees our Marketing Intern from Newcastle University, Sumanjeet Sandhu, start with us. One of Sumanjeet's tasks will be to raise brand awareness of Autism Works through social media. Sumanjeet's skills and interest in digital marketing should help to continue to raise the profile of Autism Works.

In the meantime, be sure to stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works as the company continues to develop.

Friday 27 May 2011

Bids and Savings

With the 'scrum meeting' system now in place, this week at Autism Works has felt more 'task focused'. With this comes a stronger feeling of sense of direction as well as a good balance of interaction between team members and working unsupervised. Two of our scrum meetings this week have had to be done via Skype with Peter having to spend time at home recovering from illness. Fortunately, he is now better and back to work.

This week, I have started working on another funding bid and to aid putting across a strong case to attract funding to autism works to assist with employee support and training costs, I have also been doing a literature search on cost savings and autism. One of the points that I have so often been putting across in bids or when promoting Autism Works generally focuses on how paid employment for adults with ASC, including Asperger's Syndrome, enables independence and becoming equally-valued members of their community. What this research focuses on though is how unemployment of adults with ASC has detrimental overall economic effects to society generally, including on the public purse.

Research conducted by the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2009) suggests that while adults with ASC miss out on potential earnings through lost employment, the national cost of supporting adults with ASC amounts to £25 billion. These costs span all areas of public sector expenditure in terms of benefits an expensive care packages in addition to the high costs it can bring to families in relation to out of pocket expenses. However, the research also stresses that significant investment in supported employment is needed to address this. By putting across how Autism Works can potentially make a significant dent in this figure as well as the 85 per cent of an estimated 500,000 adults with ASC who are currently unemployed, this will hopefully attract investment

Already, I am seeing the benefits of the scrum meeting system as I am feeling much more focused on my tasks as well as how it is aiding more working interaction of team members, which also appears to be helping Grayson, our Testing Manager, continue to settle in. Grayson's ten years' experience of working in the software testing industry developing and delivering training that leads to industry-recognised qualifications is adding an extra element to the funding bid applications, where we are able to show where funding can be used effectively. That the ISEB (the qualification required to be a software tester) is widely-recognised across the IT industry, this prepares future Autism Works employees not just to work as software testers at Autism Works, but also with other IT companies.

Elsewhere, in a two weeks' time, we have our marketing intern Sumanjeet Sandhu starts her ten-week placement with us. Studying for an MSc in E-Business and E-Marketing at Newcastle University, Sumanjeet will work with us to help build our marketing strategy, including using digital marketing tools. be sure to watch this space to see how this develops.

Friday 20 May 2011

Building Momentum

After a period of chronic forgetfulness, I can now say that I am near fully re-adjusted to the demands of Autism Works, which has come at just the right time, especially as we are highly likely to be extremely busy over the next few weeks. On a positive note, Grayson Cobb, our new Testing Manager, appears to be settling in very well in his first week with the company. Elsewhere, we have also appointed a marketing student from Newcastle University to work with us on an internship basis for ten weeks to help develop a marketing model, in particular utilising the social networks more.

This morning we have had our first team meeting since Grayson joined us. Though we all know what we would ideally like to achieve in terms of providing sustainable employment to adults on the autistic spectrum, what we have agreed that we need to do at this stage is to set about how we will achieve this. To help build momentum towards this, we are working towards developing a culture of collective responsibility, knowing our individual responsibilities as well as our responsibilities as a team, which will provide consistency as well as aid decision making.

With Peter taking much responsibility for the business development and decisions and the finances largely being within the realm of Karl Hardy, there have often been many inhibitors within my tasks, particularly with the financial information needed. Where collective responsibility will help is with decision-making without too much need of relying on a seeking a second opinion or being blocked by an inhibiting factor. This will also help me to avoid excessive procrastination, something which I was talking about at a mindfulness conference I was speaking at this about how mindfulness practice, by just being here and now in the present moment, enables one to focus on the task in hand avoiding procrastination.

Right now, in this moment, I am continuing to work on funding bids. With Grayson on board, this presents me with some help when applying for funding bids. Part of Grayson's duties and responsibilities is to allocate costs for training and employee costs, which will make it clearer for me when filling in funding application forms, particularly when answering questions such as how much funding are we to apply to for as well as what we will use the funding for. To have such clarity will be of great help to me. To keep on track of where we are, we have arranged to have 'scrum' meetings each day, to tune in the past and future to the present, enabling us to review recent activity, look at where it has us in the present before looking at the next step, rather like converting third downs in a game of America Football until reaching the ultimate aim, scoring a touchdown!

Be sure to watch this space as momentum continues to build.

Saturday 14 May 2011


Welcome back to adventures with Autism Works!

After a fantastic trip to South America, during which I took in some of the most spectacular scenery I can say I have ever seen, I have come back to some interesting changes at Autism Works as well as a slight disappointment.

My trip to South America was spectacular not only in the full sense of the word, but also in variation of different landscapes and climates, as well as experiencing some of the strongest winds I have ever known. Patagonia initially appealed to me after happening to see some footage of Simon Reeve’s Rough Guide to the World television series on the BBC and it looked so spectacular with its mountains and glaciers. I was told that I would be ‘blown away’ by some of the sights in Patagonia, including Mount Fitzroy in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park and Chile’s magnificent Torres del Paine National Park, and I literally almost was on at least two occasions! The ultimate highlight though was seeing a condor in full flight soaring across the Andes. I hope to go back to South America again in the not too distant future, after I have learned a little more Spanish, or in the case of Brazil, Portuguese.

Coming back to Autism Works, I learned that, unfortunately, we didn’t get any funding from the Department of Health Third Sector Investment Fund to which we submitted an application last Autumn. However, the positive news is that we have now appointed our Testing Manager, Grayson Cobb. With six years behind him as a Testing Manager and a total of ten years’ experience in software testing, Grayson has tested software for a number of major companies on a self-employed contractor basis, including two years at the National Institute for Health Research. In his new and potentially exciting role at Autism Works, Grayson is eager to bring high-profile software testing contracts to the company as well as developing confidence in our first software testers due to be appointed in the coming months.  

Before taking time off work to go trekking, I had been used to it being just Peter and myself sharing our Grey Street office, but now, our workforce, both paid and unpaid is slowly expanding. In addition to Grayson, we have also had some input from Dan Cottrell, a young man recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome currently experiencing the frustrations of not being able to obtain employment, despite having a degree in Internet Computing. However, Dan has very kindly been coming into Autism Works where he is putting his web-development skills to good use in helping to rebrand the Autism Works website – but on the look-out for an improved site over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, after struggling to adjust to coming back to work, I am working on three funding bids and we are also taking on a student intern to help us with marketing activities. After being away for almost a month, coming back to Autism Works almost feels like starting a new job, but I am looking forward to working with Grayson and continuing to work with Dan, to whom we are grateful for his contribution thus far with the website. I’m sure you’ll be impressed when it goes live!