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!