It was recently neurodiversity week[i], a celebration of neurodiversity and its strengths. It was also a week to help raise greater understanding of these conditions, to help foster a more caring and understanding society. However for every individual who is thriving, there are countless more who need much greater support. Not everyone with these conditions will be able to work, or they may find accessing work a challenge. A positive is that, just as with the movement in the late twentieth century for employers to make allowances and provide access for those with physical needs, the move to provide differentiated work places[ii] for those with hidden needs and disabilities is building momentum and growing.
Some employers during job interviews now make allowances, including some of the tech firms in ‘silicon valley’[iii]. Key to this are employers considering whether their job interview assessments are actually assessing the skills they think they are, or whether they are disadvantaging individuals in the interview process. Digital tools have made it easier to access work. One of the leading advocates for those with autism (and role model for many), Sara Harvey, reflects on how these tools have been crucial for her and work – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/balancing-act-differently-abled-entrepreneur-sara-jane-harvey/. Anyone wishing to gain an insight into ASC for their own understanding or professional CPD could do well to follow her vlogs on social media such as LinkedIn and Facebook.
There are also glimmers of hope within education and training, with examples of successful models supporting transition from education to work such as Goldwyn College in Ashford,[iv] as well as supported employment organisations[v] like the award winning Kent Supported Employment team[vi].
There is, however, much more to be done. Especially for those unable to gain an EHCP[vii] who are neurodiverse but don’t meet the threshold of needs set by local authorities for support; thereby being unable to access some programmes of transition.
As an area to write about and discuss, it can be difficult. Not because of the subject matter but because of the use, sensitivity and power of language[viii]. How some conditions are described have changed. Autistic Spectrum Disorder has been reclaimed to become Autistic Spectrum Condition; we are witnessing a revolution whereby the language used is being rewritten. Medical terminology which describes a person by their diagnosis is no longer the only narrative; alternative descriptors are being used by individuals which can vary, depending on personal preference.
Therefore I write with a full positive regard for those with these conditions (if I cause any offense through a clumsy unintentional use of language, I apologise in advance). I know of one brilliant young man who takes to task any teacher in his school who says he has ADHD…he has says he has ADHC and not a disability but ‘superpower’. This article’s intent is for us to consider what part we can play as career development professionals and educationalists working in schools and colleges, in supporting those who are neurodiverse.
DESIGNING A CAREERS PROGRAMME FOR ALL
As a practitioner designing programmes of career support to deliver in schools, my first regard is to consider ‘How can the careers delivery, meet the needs of the widest range of students?’
In many cases this comes down to accessibility. Is the only way students can access me through formal one to one appointments in school or a canteen based lunchtime drop in? (Which many with sensory needs can struggle with due to the noise). Are there other ways to access the career guidance which my team and I offer? Can we be emailed or receive texts? Is there a quieter drop-in available after school?
For example: One student I worked with couldn’t cope in large groups or, formal one-to-one appointments. Instead, he ‘popped in’ for five minutes for about a month every lunchtime as this worked for him. During this time we worked together to help him figure out and make the next steps for his post 16 plans. Another preferred to discuss her ideas for the future over an email exchange rather than in person.
It is hubris to assume that we have all the answers, so working with other professionals and key workers in and out of school is crucial for insight, as well as listening and actually hearing the family, and most importantly the individual, who we are supporting. This means making sure the individual has a voice, whether space and time to talk in an environment which is enabling for them or the tools to communicate in other ways, such as using visual action plans and/or dream clouds to draw out their ideas.
We can also provide space via our body language, through exercising patience and not rushing people, providing thinking time and an unconditional positive regard, by not forcing eye contact (if our client finds this difficult); as well as not forcing decision making (which is the same for all clients with or without additional needs).
Alongside the client work, staff training and CPD is important. However, we have to be careful of dangerous or outdated ideas and approaches that seek to put individuals in boxes of ‘what is and isn’t possible’ or make assumptions, regardless of how convenient this may seem. From experience, I am surprised most days by my clients, who succeed in so many ways. We must remember that what is possible for one individual isn’t for another, regardless of whether their ‘conditions’ look similar or share the same label. Every individual’s skills and abilities can vary by context, whether they feel comfortable or safe, stressed or anxious.
A young person with autism who can struggle communicating in a maths lesson may find themselves able to communicate quite well if working or learning within an area they are really interested in. If we are eager to label and not consider clients holistically, we ignore these strengths at our peril.
As with most clients, helping individuals to identify and play to their strengths can become the very thing which makes them successful. Rather than focusing on the language of deficiency, we can help each client focus on where they feel most able and where these skills and interests can take them. Consider the brothers who set up their own comic book shop – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-46236942, turning their specialist interest into a thriving business.
ADVOCACY & MULTI AGENCY APPROACHES
Taking time to advocate and challenge systems where there is discrimination against any individual, by intention or carelessness, is also key to careers work[ix]. When there is ‘joined up thinking’, the world really can change for the better. A fantastic example of this has been the team at Canterbury College[x], who went out of their way to adjust the interview style for a student[xi] with high levels of anxiety looking to join a course, the differentiated support has enabled the student to attend her interview at the college; multi agency working at its finest! Providers who don’t behave in this way miss out on amazing students whilst also discriminating against those most in need. Reasonable adjustments in support arrangements and teaching can make or break education[xii].
As we can see, making the time to network in our schools and colleges with other professionals who can help us to support our clients and their families is vital. Alongside advocating, advising parents/carers and clients what support they can access, where and how is important. If we don’t know, signposting to those who do is in our remit. If we fail in our duty to do so, there is one more family struggling to access the support they need.
APPLYING WHAT WE LEARN
For us as practitioners, developing our understanding of these conditions requires an investment in CPD (as mentioned earlier); a cornerstone of our principles and a requirement for all Registered Career Development Professionals[xiii]. CPD is, of course, one which should be an ongoing process and enables us to keep ahead of changes, reducing the danger of falling into the pitfall of relying on outdated and potentially harmful ideas and/or misinformation. I am acutely aware that the understanding I gained from my training on conditions within neurodiversity as a trainee teacher over fifteen years ago is now very different to my current understanding; this is one example of why we need ‘continual’ professional development and not one-off training sessions.
If we then don’t apply this knowledge to our practice, we are providing a disservice to those we seek to support. If we make excuses, take the easy route of ‘sticking to what we know’ and not trying out new ways of working (no matter if they are scary or may go wrong and/or we may look foolish), our careers practice will never move on. I want the advisers I look after and manage to have their ‘off days’ when they are trying things out, as it means they are attempting new things, growing, reflecting, learning and developing their practice, to the benefit of our beneficiaries.
So whether it’s having doodle pads in a career session for students to use, fiddle cubes or building blocks to hand, trying out different ways to ask questions or run sessions. We need to find room in our practice for experimentation, reflection, creative curiosity and growth.
It can be as simple as when we are facilitating group sessions, being aware of what each member of the class needs. We make allowances for those in wheelchairs, we should also do the same for those who need to stim, move about or are going through depression. To make these allowances, we need to make sure we are informed. In the busyness of the school day, we need to ensure we are prepared and know (to the best of our ability) who we have in front of us and what their needs are.
We can also work in our communities to bolster understanding and provide positive role models of those who are neurodiverse. Check out the assembly resources at: https://www.adhdfoundation.org.uk/2019/05/07/neurodiversity-celebration-week-2019/ to help foster positive discussions and understanding at your school or college!
For those supporting young people in schools, I urge you to consider what else can you be doing?
Is your programme of careers support truly inclusive? Have you made the time to put the resources in place?
Chris Targett, Area Manager and Careers Adviser
[vii] EHCP – Education Health Care Plan: https://www.gov.uk/children-with-special-educational-needs/extra-SEN-help
[xi] Note: this student didn’t have an EHCP, this was support to be supportive