Helping young people with autism into work

The National Autism Strategy aims to help all adults with autism into work. Kellie Nauls, project coordinator for the Moving On Employment Project in the Shetland Islands, talks about how a pilot in the region is helping young people with autism to find and keep a job.

The Government’s long-term aim is a national employment rate of 80% (Department for Work and Pensions, 2008). However, only 12% of people with high-functioning autism, or Asperger syndrome, have full-time jobs (National Autistic Society, 2012). As part of the provisions of the Autism Act (2009), the Government published a National Autism Strategy (2010) and one of its aims is that all adults with autism are helped into work.

Autism is a lifelong developmental ­disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people and the world around them. It is a spectrum condition, which means that while all ­people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in different ways. Asperger syndrome is a form of autism. People with autism often have problems finding and keeping a job ­because of a lack of specialised information, advice and practical support (National ­Autistic Society, 2012).

The UK Government’s response to the Sayce review (2011), “Disability employment support: fulfilling potential” (2012), recommends how more people with disabilities can be helped to move into and sustain work. It says that support agencies can better support the transition from education to employment, and that specialised assistance is important to ensure that people in this group have the same opportunities as other people. The Black report, “Working for a healthier tomorrow” (2008), states that young people need access to information and advice to make an informed decision about their future.

Freud (2007) highlighted that the voluntary sector runs programmes assisting those with complex problems back to work. The author of this article, an OH professional with a BA in OH nursing, is leading an innovative pilot project within the voluntary sector that is successfully supporting young people in this group into employment, education or training in the Shetland Islands.

Shetland is a remote and rural community with more than 100 small islands – just 15 of them inhabited. The islands span 100 miles (145km) and lie 600 miles (960km) north of London.

Employment support

The Moving On Employment Project, a Shetland-based charity, is the only supported employment agency on the islands assisting people with complex barriers into work. Any person aged 16 or over with a health problem, disability, mental health problem or other barrier to employment can refer to the service. Moving On has a database of more than 350 local employers willing to offer supported work opportunities, and the businesses contact the project proactively to fill vacant employment positions.

In 2010, it was identified that the employability of young people with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) or additional support needs (ASN) in Shetland was low – they were effectively marginalised from participating in work life because of the lack of targeted support available to them. Young people in this group reported that they wanted a greater choice of employment and that they aspire to have the same opportunities as everyone else.

It was also recognised that there was a group of unemployed young people locally who had “fallen through the net” after leaving school because of undiagnosed or recognised ASN or ASC.

Funding was secured for a two-year pilot project to trial a transition support service to support young people aged between 16 and 25 years with ASC or ASN into ­employment. No other agency was offering this type of service locally.

The pilot project has been very successful, with 74% of participants to date making the transition into employment, education or training. The service aims to promote and enhance work opportunities for this group within the local community. It offers support not only to the young person but also to their employer or training provider, ensuring that a long-term positive outcome can be sustained.

quotemarksThe pilot project has been very successful, with 74% of participants to date making the transition into employment, education or training.”

Intensive and targeted one-to-one support is offered to young people, taking into consideration their unique needs. They are helped to become job ready and as ­independent as possible. An outcome-based approach is used to achieve positive results. The key factor to success is building a trusting and effective relationship with each young person. This enables each individ­ual to move though the stages of intervention to achieve their goals.

The stages of intervention are: engaging and assessing; personal action planning and setting goals; accessing work and training opportunities; reviewing and evaluating; and discharge. The service incorporates the national ­Supported Employment Framework, a model of good practice for supported ­employment organisations.

The types of activities that young people can access include developing a CV, arranging “work tasters” in an area of their choice, training such as health and safety, support with completing job applications and self-awareness training. An information sheet can be compiled with the young person for their employer about autistic spectrum conditions in general and how it affects them individually. A minimum of six weeks of support is offered to each young person and employer during their transition ­period into the workplace.

The service has worked effectively with schools to help to identify young people who would most benefit from this service. This has meant that those at risk are identified at an early stage to help prevent ­individuals from “falling through the net” when they leave school. Engaging with young people and their families at an ­early stage gives time to build effective relationships and plan for a successful transition. A formal diagnosis is not required to access this service – there is a process of information gathering from partner agencies to ensure that the service is appropriate to their needs.

On evaluation, the transition service ­appears to offer the right approach. Some 90% of families and all young people and employers who responded said that the service offers the right level of support (see box 1). A total of 29% of young people have secured full-time employment and 29% part-time employment to date, which equates to 58% of service users.This compares well with the national average for this group.

The future direction of the health and work agenda is set out in “Fitness for work”, the Government response to “Health at work – an independent review of sickness absence” (2013). It states that with an ageing population, younger people will become increasingly critical to the workforce of the future and therefore we need to ensure they are better prepared for working life.

Changes to welfare reform are resulting in an increasing number of young people in this group seeking employment in the open market. This service improves their chances of ­securing and maintaining ­employment in a very competitive job market.

This project brings young people to the attention of prospective employers in a ­different way by offering a seamless employment service that removes much of the uncertainty about employing individuals from this group.

Kellie Naulls, BA in OH Nursing, is project coordinator for the Moving On Employment Project, Shetland Islands


Black C (2008).Working for a Healthier Tomorrow. Department for Work and Pensions.

National Autistic Society (2012).

Autism Act 2009.

Autism Strategy 2010.

Department for Work and Pensions (2012). Disability Employment Support: Fulfilling Potential 2012.

Box 1: Comments about the Transition Service

Young person’s comment

“It went at my speed and when I was ready; I didn’t get pushed.”

Family member’s comment

“I found the back-up help invaluable, especially when he had a bit of a wobble about his work relationship. It was a very difficult time for us all, and the support worker’s assistance went a long way.”

Employer’s comment

“This service allowed a very talented young person to find a way forward with their life. They have demonstrated that they have a huge amount to offer our community and have many skills and talents that might never have come to light.”

Case study: Nicholas

An unemployed young man with Asperger syndrome was referred to the transition service by his family. Twenty-year-old Nicholas had little social contact outside his family circle and was spending a lot of time sitting in his bedroom playing computer games, staying up late into the night and sleeping during the day. He was allocated a support worker, who worked slowly to build up a trusting relationship with him.

Over several meetings, Nicholas opened up about his interests and his thoughts on his own future. An action plan was developed and he set up the goals he wanted to achieve. These included accessing social activities to develop his soft skills and increase his social networks. He was interested in being a cadet for the local Territorial Army (TA) and also wanted to attend a social club. His support worker arranged for him to meet with representatives from both. Nicholas’ confidence grew as he attended these clubs on his own.

Nicholas was unsure what he would like to do for a job, but earning money was a big priority for him. His support worker explored what types of employment might be of interest and supported him into finding paid work. Nicholas had a work trial and then secured a paid full-time job in the local fish market. His support worker kept contact with him for the first few weeks of his new job to make sure that he was getting on well. When his support worker was sure that he was still happy at his work and sustaining this, Nicholas was discharged from the service. Nicholas is still in full-time employment and still attends the TA.

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