Tuesday 31 January 2012

Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers Programme and Decision-Making in the Digital Economy

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. First of all, apologies for the lateness of this blog entry as we have been busy at Autism Works submitting an application to the Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers Programme as well as, among other things, talking about decision-making in relation to the ever-growing digital economy in regarding transition planning for young people with Asperger's Syndrome. Also during last week, I gave my annual lecture at Northumbria University to the MA (Hons) students, which as usual, was fun.

One of the themes that I talked about during my lecture was the confusion that young people with Asperger's Syndrome, sometimes in relation to high-level anxiety they experience when faced with decisions that affect their immediate and long-term futures, can experience during transitional periods when contemplating what to pursue regarding education and careers. With stronger awareness of autism and Asperger's Syndrome in schools as well as access to diagnosis being so much better than it was for many of us who were born in the 1960s, 1970s and early-1980s, those being diagnosed earlier in life have a head start. Such a head start in knowing your strengths and weaknesses can enable effective decision-making about one's future, but to make such decisions, one usually benefits from the right guidance and information.

Working with the Sunderland Autism Sub-Group, something that we have identified is that as well as the need to raise awareness of autism and Asperger's Syndrome within potential employers, much work is also needed in raising further awareness within careers and employment advice services, including Connexions and JobcentrePlus, particularly when it comes to enabling young people with Asperger's Syndrome to make informed choices in relation to the needs of the ever-changing labour market. This includes helping young people with Asperger's Syndrome develop an awareness of the labour market, looking at careers that will be available in the immediate future as well as those that won't.

Over the last 30 years, Sunderland's labour market has shifted from coal-mining and ship-building to call-centres and automotive production. With the development of Sunderland Software City, Sunderland now looks to be heading towards playing a major part in the move towards the digital economy. Data from Sunderland Software City suggests that the digital economy has an estimated value of £250 million in the North East of England and that Sunderland itself has more technology start-up companies than anywhere in the UK outside London. As it is likely that the digital economy is where most of Sunderland's workforce, and indeed a sizeable percentage of the North East's total workforce, is likely to be based as the decade unfolds, it is essential that tomorrow's workforce members, including young people with Asperger's Syndrome, are equipped with the necessary skills.

Developing alongside Sunderland Software City, Autism Works is well-placed to provide the digital economy in the north east, nationally and internationally with better tested software that it will no doubt create competition and demand for. This should give a strong case in our application to the Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers Award. Elsewhere, over the last week I have done some more stargazing following on from Stargazing Live, including visiting Sunderland Astronomical Society's Cygnus Observatory with Dan Cottrell, one Autism Works' two Software Test Analysts, who also enjoyed the experience. We got some great views of Jupiter and its four largest moons through the 14-inch reflecting telescope that they have there, as well as seeing a demonstration of Stellarium, planetarium software.

This week, I have been working on some charity fundraising challenges as well as aurora-chasing, which hopefully I should have some more information to include in my next blog entry this coming Friday. Stay tuned to find out more!

Friday 20 January 2012

Stargazing and Lecture Planning

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. This week has been exciting, as I have been doing some Stargazing! Earlier in the week, I went to an event at Gibside, a National Trust-owned country estate near Gateshead as part of the BBC's Stargazing Live series presented by Professor Brian Cox and Dara O'Briain. The event at Gibside was one of a number of events taking place throughout the United Kingdom to encourage interest in Astronomy. Elsewhere this week, I have also been in the process of planning my annual lecture and workshop at Northumbria University next week for the MA (Hons) Autism students.

Astronomy was a childhood obsession and is still one of my favourite interests. Growing up as a child with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, often feeling so misunderstood I used to gaze up at the night sky wondering if there were any worlds out there where I would feel more accepted. Taking part in Stargazing Live brought back some of these childhood memories. Looking through some of the telescopes brought along by various local astronomical societies, I got some great views of Jupiter and its four largest moons, the Orion Nebulae, the Pleiades in the constellation of Taurus (pictured below) and a few others, but unfortunately there isn't quite enough room to name them all here!

Having been an 'escape' for me during childhood, in adulthood, stargazing has also helped me with my mindfulness practice, particularly when I have been on meditation retreat at the Samatha Centre in Powys, Wales, where on a clear night, away from light pollution, one can so so many more stars than normal, including an arm of the Milky Way. One of my favourite aspects of stargazing is that it provides a link with the past, with the stars being as they were however many light years they are away from us. For instance, the stars in the Pleiades are between 390 and 450 light years away so we see them as they were this long ago, back to around when Galileo first started using a telescope for astronomy. Meanwhile, one of the purposes of meditation is to 'tune in' to the present by focusing on the breath here and now in the present. Tuning into the present involves tuning your past into the present. When focusing on the breath in the present, the stars in the sky being as they were in the past, help me tune into the present, thus helping me control anxiety that I sometimes experience in relation to Asperger's Syndrome.

Where astronomy has some relevance to my lectures and workshops on Asperger's Syndrome relates to special interests that people with Asperger's Syndrome may have. Astronomy is sometimes over-stereotyped as an Asperger-like interest or obsession. What I like to focus on with Asperger-related special interests is, rather than taking them away, approaching them flexibly by looking at where they link to other interests or areas of study, almost like 'signposts' to other parts of the National Curriculum. As well as being linked to its closely related science subjects, an interest in astronomy can also be linked to Greek mythology, looking at how the constellations were formed, as well as music (Gustav Holst's The Planets Suite), literature (science-fiction novels/comics), history (looking back in time at the stars as to historical events on Earth in relation to to how many light years away different stars are) and many others, for which again there isn't quite enough room to cover!

As well as my lecture, next week I also have a meeting with Daisy Chain about the challenges that I mentioned in my previous entry to discuss options on participation. To find out how it all unfolds as well as to see how my lecture went, stay tuned to this space, through being 'present' with it.

Special thanks to Hannah Bayman and Trai Anfield from the BBC Look North Weather team for providing the link for obtaining tickets to Stargazing Live during their weather forecasts

Friday 13 January 2012

Feedback and Starting a Half-Marathon

One notices when things have got back to normal after the Christmas and New Year break with the bright lights being taken down and put away for another year and the quiet Friday before the second weekend in January with people being either still hungover, or perhaps more likely, spent up after the holiday period. meanwhile, work has continued to progress as normal at Autism Works.

Already, we have had some good news in 2012. Though I am not at liberty at this stage to go into details of our software testing work due to non-disclosure agreements, I can happily say that feedback suggests that our clients have so far been very impressed with our work. To hear such encouraging feedback is often good for confidence and helps to develop self-esteem in many people with Asperger's Syndrome. Personally, I have found that such feedback can be a driving force in relation to knowing when and where I have made such a valuable contribution.

This will hopefully bode well for current aims and objectives that we have of continuing to market ourselves and win some good contracts. In my capacity, my aim is to continue to sell and promote Autism Works to obtain further awards, including the Deloitte Social Innovation Award, an application on which I am currently working, which will hopefully attract funding. As well as simply providing sustainable employment to adults with Autism and Asperger's Syndrome, I feel that if we are able to show that, as a company, we provide a good service in being able to compete at market rates as our early feedback suggests, we have a good chance of such success.

As well as continuing to sell the aims and objectives of Autism Works, I have also set another notable goal for myself this year, which is to enter and complete the Bupa Great North Run, the world's largest half-marathon. Like starting my post at Autism Works was, taking part in a half-marathon will be unknown territory for me, and just to complete it, regardless of how long it takes me, will be a major achievement. To see how this progresses (including how my training goes) as well as how Autism Works develops in 2012, stay tuned to Adventures with Autism Works.

Friday 6 January 2012

Happy New Year!

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works after what I am sure has been a much needed festive break for us all. First of all, Happy New Year for 2012 to you all and I hope that you all had a great Christmas and New Years' Eve, without eating and drinking too much! Such are the temptations during the festive season with all the chocolate and mulled wine around!

On a personal note, I can happily say that I had a busy but highly enjoyable Christmas, starting with the media work with Tyne Tees and BBC Radio Newcastle in the run-up to the festive season and getting my Christmas shopping done in time for the big day. One of the highlights of Christmas for me, and certainly the most laughable, was watching Mrs Bucket on the QE2 on Christmas Eve in a classic episode of Keeping Up Appearances* from 1993. It is said that some of the best comedy is the world seen through different eyes, including Asperger eyes, I especially find it hilarious when figures of speech are interpreted literally! Keeping Up Appearances is enjoyed by many other people with Asperger's Syndrome whom I have met. For me, the moment when Mrs Bucket point out that there are two empty seats at the captain's table, but the waiter the tells her that they are taken and the expression on her face when it is her sister Daisy and her layabout brother-in-law Onslow that turn up is just magic!

My New Year, I can also happily say, was a very peaceful one. One of the first things that many of us think about once a new calendar year is rung in is resolutions. From my mindfulness practice though, which I have been doing much of over the holiday period, I have understood that what has often been a source of anxiety for me is my 'list' of things that I would like to do, to attain as well as places to visit, not least because it takes me out of the present, as well as distracts me from priorities in hand. So rather than set out to do a list of things in 2012, if I have anything that resembles a 'New Year's Resolution', it is to live in the year as it unfolds month by month, week by week, day by day from moment to moment.

Immediate priorities at Autism Works include continuing to work with Sunderland Software City as well as marketing ourselves to hopefully win ourselves some more testing contracts. Within my role, my immediate priorities include putting together applications to the Flexibility Support Fund and also to the Deloitte Social Innovation Award, which if we attain it can attract funding. We are also in the process of awaiting an outcome to a funding bid to the Gatsby Fund, a Sainsbury Charitable Foundation Fund.

To see how 2012 unfolds at Autism Works, stay tuned. 

All the best for 2012,

*No matter how many times I watch Keeping Up Appearances, I still can't help feeling sorry for poor Richard!