Friday 30 November 2012

Full Steam Ahead to New Contracts, Parliament and an Early Christmas!

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works after a week's break, and what a lot of things have happened since my last entry, from new software testing contracts to a mention in the House of Commons! For me though, the highlight was a revisiting some of my happiest childhood memories with a thrilling steam train ride along the East Coast Mainline from York to London King's Cross!

Sharon Hodgson
Following on from the partnership that Autism Works established with Camasco in October, the company is embarking on a new testing contract and just last week, to our surprise, we heard the company's name mentioned in Parliament by Sharon Hodgson MP during a debate about autism and the Autism Act 2009,and to my own surprise, I heard my own name mentioned! Highlighting the National Autistic Society's Undiscovered Workforce campaign, Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland West and a Shadow Education Minister, talked about the efforts made by Autism Works to develop degrees of flexibility to make recruitment processes more autism-friendly. Mrs Hodgson, who previously came to visit Autism Works in 2010, not long after the company's inception and also attended the 2011 ESPA Graduation, made a very strong contribution to what was a lively debate. To see the Hansard transcript of this debate, click on the following link and scroll down to 6.28pm

As I write this entry, today is the last day of November. Normally, I don't like to do too much Christmas-related stuff until the beginning of December, but this year, Christmas has already come a month earlier, as I fulfilled a childhood dream of being steam-hauled down the East Coast mainline! Those who have read my first book and as others may have gathered from previous blog entries, may well know ho much I enjoy train journeys, including the train journeys to places where I am giving talks, seminars and workshops, but this experience was special. Though I have previously travelled on steam-hauled journey's on preserved heritage railways, this was my first ever mainline steam-hauled experience. The 'Tynesider Special' was hauled by A4 Pacific 60009 Union of South Africa, from the same class of steam locomotives as the famous 4498 Mallard, which holds the official world record speed for steam traction, reaching 126mph on 3rd July 1938. The moment Union of South Africa arrived at the platform at York Station, I felt like a child on Christmas Day! Christmas also came early for the children on board when Father Christmas and his elves came around handing out presents The atmosphere on board the train, with the Christmas decorations in old-fashioned carriages, was really run as the smoke flew past the windows!

60009 Union of South Africa at King's Cross, London
Steaming down the East Coast mainline, Union of South Africa passed Stoke bank just past Grantham, around where Mallard broke the record, doing a steady 80mph, before making a brief stop in Peterborough to take on more water, where Mallard had to be replaced after its record breaking run after one of its cylinders overheated. The best part of the day though was when just about all the passengers including myself, after getting off the train at King's Cross wanted to shake the driver and fireman's hands after such a great run!

Alongside providing employment, one of Autism Works other aims was contributing to enabling better quality of life to adults on the autistic spectrum. As readers of this blog may remember, last year, I took a city break to Prague with Dan Cottrell, one of Autism Works first two Software Test Analysts. Dan also accompanied me on the Tynesider Special for what was his first visit to London in ten years, which I was surprised about. Making use of out time in London, we visited the British Museum before being diesel-hauled home. For Dan, who has been with us for nearly two years, Autism Works has certainly been an eye-opener not just professionally, but also socially. Be sure to keep following this blog to find out about our next adventure - a Christmas weekend break in Brussels. Don't forget also to keep circulating the following link to my Kilimanjaro challenge to raise much needed-funds for Daisy Chain at

A huge thank-you to the Rt Hon Sharon Hodgson MP for highlighting our work in Parliament and her continued interest in ESPA and Autism Works. Special thanks also to the Railway Touring Company for their fantastic hospitality on board the Tynesider Special, and for 60009 Union of South Africa, a performance to be proud of! 

Friday 16 November 2012

Social Values, Giving and Pudsey Bear

Since taking up my post at Autism Works, a major change that I feel I have noticed within myself, particularly from getting to grips with the concept of social enterprise and the recently-passed Social Values Act, which I have been exploring this week, is how much more socially aware I have become, which I also feel has reinforced my work as an Asperger trainer.

The concept of social enterprise and the Social Value Act may immediately sound like 'great ideas', but like with ideas that sound great on paper, the hard part comes when applying them to business practice, particularly when measuring their impact. A useful way towards putting such concepts into practice is for one to 'tune' their way of thought towards them, including applying a conscious awareness of the themes involved. A story from the early part of life of the Buddha that I found inspiring and that perhaps distantly relates to the themes in the Social Value Act was a time when the young Prince Siddhartha observed the annual ploughing festival with his father in the kingdom where he lived in what is now northern India and saw that when a plough overturned a stretch of soil, an earthworm was uncovered and a bird flew down from a nearby tree and ate the worm. From this moment, the young Prince Siddharta noticed the concept of inter-connection.

Inter-connection as seen from such a simple observation could be a useful starting point for applying the social value act, by looking at the inter-connection of values, and in the case of Autism Works, how values that the company has in relation to its social enterprise status, can have an effect on enabling other such values for the autism community as well as the Corporate and Social Responsibility element of the business community, including contributing to improved quality life for adults on the autistic spectrum. In turn, excessive dependence on their families as well as on professionals who may be pushed to the limit in supporting them can be reduced while employers benefit from inclusion of adults on the autistic spectrum in their workforce, helping to foster team culture and diversity.

Understanding the difference that you are making through a simple act is a theme that has great significance here and now as I write this blog, for today is Children in Need day! A part of my previous job with Durham County Council that I miss is dressing up as Pudsey each year and scouring the executive's offices at Durham County Hall for donations with two students from Durham Trinity School's Autistic Provision Unit. To do my part for Children in Need this year I have bought this year's beautiful BBC Look North 2013 Weather Calendar, the proceeds of which will go towards the charity. There are some spectacular images in the 2013 edition, including one of the Northern Lights over Northumberland. If you would like to contribute to Children in Need 2012 or if you are looking for any early ideas for Christmas presents with the festive season approaching, click on the photograph of me with Pudsey and Hannah Bayman from BBC Look North's weather team if you would like to purchase a 2013 BBC Look North Weather calendar. 

On the theme of giving, I have also visited the Vivekarama Buddhist Temple in Sunderland to observe the Kathina festival, a time of giving in Buddhism when the lay community express gratitude to monks with alms giving, including giving of new robes. If you feel in such a giving mood, you may like to visit my sponsorship page for my Kilimanjaro challenge to raise much-needed funds for Daisy Chain at

Autism Works would like to thank everyone who has participated in any fundraising activities or has kindly donated in aid of Children in Need 2012. What I especially miss about dressing up as Pudsey was when people asked who was in the bear suit, and the Durham Trinity students would say: 'This is Pudsey Bear himself!'

Friday 9 November 2012

Persistence and Organic Growth

Welcome back to Adventures with Autism Works. First of all, apologies for having to wait a little longer than usual for another blog entry as I have been away this week and last speaking at conferences and giving training on Asperger's Syndrome, first in Manchester, then back home in Sunderland and then in Derby. As usual, there were many interesting questions and responses that came my way, but I also got to see how the practical aspect of my training had an effect on another speaker.

In the ten years that I have given talks seminars and training on Asperger's Syndrome, not only has my content changed as my outlook on life has slowly changed in this time, but the role of the Asperger trainer is also gradually getting harder. For me, what is perhaps the most difficult aspect of giving training on Asperger's Syndrome, despite being diagnosed with the condition and experiencing living with it on a daily basis, I am not 'representative' of all people on the autistic spectrum. Not only are individual experiences of Asperger's Syndrome different, but different individual perspectives of Asperger's Syndrome and general outlooks on life also often vary dramatically. To experience a different life outlook on the autistic spectrum would involve me having to come right out of my own 'Asperger comfort zone', just like a person not on the autistic spectrum would have to come out of their comfort zone to experience what it may like to be on the autistic spectrum.

More recently though in the ten years since my first Asperger's Syndrome seminar, I have begun to notice more how Asperger's Syndrome doesn't only affect me, or others with the condition, but also effects people around us, particularly when it comes to communication. At the conference I spoke at in Manchester, I was pleased to find out that the methods that I have found helpful in coping with the ups and downs Asperger's Syndrome helped one of the other speakers. During many of my seminars, I give audiences a chance to participate in a three-minute breathing space exercise, which involves just focusing on this breath coming in and this breath going out, as well as noticing where the mind wonders, and just gradually calling the mind back to the breath, thus helping one gradually become more in tune with the present moment as it is. One of the other speakers later came to me and said that it was really good to speak after me because this short, simple and accessible technique had  helped her to feel more relaxed after feeling a little nervous about giving a presentation.

This theme continued throughout the talks that followed, together with incorporating being present as a person with Asperger's Syndrome here and now to personal goals which one may hope to achieve in the future. One of the best pieces of advice that I have had on getting the best from mindfulness practice is not to have any expectations as to what it may lead to, as the more you may expect it to deliver, it takes you out of the present to something that either hasn't happened or to how you may like it to be, rather than how it is. bringing this approach to personal goals, in this way, it helps to be realistic about personal goals enabling one to work in the present to reach that goal, rather than focusing on and going for a future goal.

The Arboretum, Derby
Visiting Derby to give a talk, I also had some time to visit Britain's first public park, the Arboretum, opened in 1840. Set aside from the pace of urban life, public parks provide an accessible space in which to not only step back from the flow, but also to observe and appreciate the rhythms and flow of nature regarding the horticultural aspect of a park. Such an appreciation of natural time is more conducive to noticing the effects of mindfulness practice than mechanical or digital time, or within projected timescales. Where noticing the effects of mindfulness practice in work situations, including plans for company growth, it helps not to expect such moment but rather persist with the development of Autism Works and allow growth of the company to occur organically.

As readers of this blog may remember, I have previously written about how the effects of mindfulness helped me complete the 2012 Bupa Great North Run. Where I can bring a mindful approach to the next part of my double challenge to raise much-needed funds for Daisy Chain, to summit Kilimanjaro, is rather than doing the trek to reach the summit, but to go for the summit not just to do the trek, but to continue with my training that I undertook for the Great North Run as well as undertaking some shorter treks closer to home. To find out more about my challenge, visit the following link
I would also like to take this opportunity to extend my compassion to those who have lost their lives on active service with the Armed Forces as well as their families with Remembrance Sunday approaching.