Work experience

I work for a charity that supports school students to improve their work related skills so they’re more ready to start employment. Pre-Covid my role was to arrange work experience placements for students from year 10 and upwards. Following a pause because of covid, schools are now starting to ask for work experience placements again. As part of the process we always ask students to let us know if there are any additional requirements or support needs we need to make an employer aware of.

For the most part we don’t get a lot of information back on the additional requirements section. There will be a few students with serious allergies who carry epipens, the occasional physical disability, hearing impairments etc. Our message to students and their parents / carers is that it’s up to them when their placement is secured to make contact with their employer to discuss any accommodations they might need, but we also need to know so that we can place them in the most appropriate environment. For example, do they need a workplace with wheelchair access, do they need to work reduced hours, do they need a member of staff from school to accompany them etc.

With each year group we work with there will also be a small number who let us know they’re autistic and these have been the students I’ve found it hard to know how to place because I didn’t really understand what the most appropriate environment might be or what accommodations might be needed. Often the students don’t give any further details, and when we ask the school SENCO it’s common for them to say no additional support is needed or that it will be managed by school.

Now I have an autistic child myself I know that as a parent I would be fully on board with her going out and doing work experience, but only in the right environment. Let’s say we put ‘autism’ on her form but didn’t provide information on what this actually means and Katie got placed in a kitchen somewhere because she likes cooking. If she was put in a big, noisy, busy kitchen with a couple of other work experience students she would struggle big time. She would miss half the instructions she was given because she would be distracted by the noise, she would think she had done something wrong and was being shouted at if her supervisor was having to raise their voice above the noise, she would be worried about the amount of people and potential for them to bump into her, and she would stress about having to be sociable and make conversation with the other students. If she was put in a small / quiet café on her own she would find it a lot more manageable with less noise, a supervisor who was just concentrating on her and not other students, and not having to talk to so many people.

In both situations she would get through the day and appear to be OK, so I suppose from that point of view we wouldn’t need to specify any accommodations or give further details about her autism. But if she was in the first situation she would probably come home and be completely exhausted, need the rest of the day to be by herself and have quiet time, her anxiety would be sky high and she would need a total lack of demands placed on her at home. She probably wouldn’t have a positive experience and would be scared of getting a ‘proper’ job when the time came. If she was put in the second situation she would still have some anxiety but she would most likely enjoy it and develop confidence from it. If we asked for her to have regular breaks, instructions to be given clearly and broken down into small chunks, and for an employer to recognise that she is listening even if she’s not looking at them that would be even better for her.

Which makes me wonder, why did we so consistently get information back telling us that students were autistic but with no further information about what this meant or what adjustments could be made? Is it because autistic kids and their parents are so used to not having their needs adequately met that they don’t bother trying anymore? Is the assumption just that they’ll have to just suck it up and get through the week? Did parents think we wouldn’t want to place their children if there was extra effort involved?

I read an article a while ago (here) highlighting that pupils in England are waiting up to 5 years for a special needs plan because of delays and bureaucratic hurdles. There is a widening gap between children from poorer families who have no choice but to wait out the delays, and better off families who end up paying for assessments or additional services themselves. This doesn’t surprise me but it does make me angry and worried about the future, including the fact that if children have an EHCP (Education Health Care Plan) this can be applied and is relevant in a work experience setting. If they don’t have one because of delays or because they’re told they don’t need one it’s so much hard to get supportive measures in place for them.

I was talking to a colleague whose son is autistic and is at a mainstream secondary school. I asked her what the school was like in terms of understanding his needs and supporting him and she just shrugged. She didn’t even know if all his teachers were aware of his diagnosis and said they don’t see the need to support him because he sits in the classroom quietly and does what he’s told. But she also said he struggles to understand the instructions and would do better academically if tasks were broken down or more clearly explained. He worries a lot about if he’s doing things right because he’s a real rule follower but doesn’t always know if he’s interpreted the rules in the way he’s expected to.

This is similar for Katie as well. Her old school told us she doesn’t need an EHCP because she’s doing fine academically. They didn’t feel she needed accommodations in the classroom because they always said she “looks fine”. Katie’s emotional wellbeing is more important to me than her academic ability but this statement really bugs me. As things stand Katie is average / meeting expectations across the board academically, which is fine. But maybe she’s not meeting her full potential and maybe if she wasn’t spending all her energy just trying to deal with her anxiety and get through the day she could be an above average student. She is doing a lot better in her new school and I am going to talk to them about their views on whether she would qualify for / benefit from an EHCP.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking about autistic people. It shouldn’t be the norm for neurotypical people, whether that’s teachers, SENCOs, employers etc, to be the ones who are sat there deciding that the autistic person in front of them ‘looks OK’ and therefore doesn’t need any support. Surely the autistic person should be allowed to advocate for themselves and tell someone what they need without fear of not being believed, viewed as a nuisance, or only being met half way. I know me getting on my soapbox and moaning via a blog isn’t going to make any difference but it’s really frustrating for me as a parent experiencing this on Katie’s behalf, and I worry about how she will manage when she’s older if she doesn’t have the confidence to advocate for herself because she’s constantly being told she doesn’t really need anything. One thing is for sure – when she is old enough to be going out on work experience I will be making sure that there is an understanding of what she needs and that she’s given an appropriate placement in a suitable environment.

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