World Autism Awareness Week begins on 27 March. It ends on 2 April, this year’s designated World Autism Awareness Day.
Coincidentally, during that week, Tuesday 31 March sees the final, flagship event of Creativity Month in Northern Ireland. Perspectives is a conference for the digital content, and film and video production sectors. The speakers include Adam Gee, Channel4’s Commissioning Editor for multi-platform and online video, Nigel Newbutt, Senior Lecturer in Digital and Media Cultures at Bath Spa University, and Joanne Douglas, a consultant psychologist specialising in the Autistic Spectrum. A video made by film-maker, actor, and creator of www.wrongplanet.net, Alex Plank will also be shown.
The conference is organised by Specialisterne NI, part of Specialisterne, or the Specialist People Foundation, launched in Denmark 10 years ago with the aim of finding a million jobs worldwide for people on the Autistic Spectrum.
A social enterprise, Specialisterne NI is essentially a recruitment consultancy with a twist. It acts as a broker between employers and individuals with autism, providing training and support for both. From one direction come people with autism, in search of jobs. From another come companies aware of the benefits of employing people identified as being on the Autistic Spectrum, and keen to recruit and make the best use of their qualities. Like a run-of-the-mill recruitment agency, Specialisterne NI will seek to match employer with employee, but, unlike other agencies, it continues to work with both once the job has been taken, to ensure the potential of the match is fully realised.
The thinking behind Specialisterne is simple. Many people with autism have the skills and qualities sought by certain sectors of industry. A leading researcher into Autism in the UK, Simon Baron Cohen, identified that many workers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) related industries scored highly on his Autism Spectrum Quotient. The skills required for success in those fields overlap with the features found in people with Autism. High levels of concentration, a willingness to complete repetitive tasks, pattern recognition, attention to detail, the development of maximum efficiency and efficacy in processes, the ability to spot disparities in data, all are vital in IT and other STEM industries, and all are considered characteristics of many on the Autistic Spectrum.
And yet, in a study published by the National Autistic Society in 2008, it was revealed that only 15% of adults with Autism were in full-time employment despite being willing and able to work.
Specialisterne’s aim is to help people with Autism find work, through education, enlightenment, and training; informing companies of the benefits of employing people with Autism, and overcoming problems in communication and self-management experienced by many people on the Autistic Spectrum. But it’s not just any work that’s sought. In the case of Specialisterne NI, the aim is to find higher level employment, at a minimum salary of £16,000.
Specialisterne NI recognises that many people who are considered disabled are considered only for low-wage, low-skilled jobs. One of the first hurdles to be overcome is the assumption that Autism is a disability. According to Sharon Didrichsen, manager of Specialisterne NI, “The message is about diversity, not disability. Although Autism is a disability, that isn’t our focus. And there is no such thing as an autistic behaviour,” she adds. “It is a social and communication difference and is qualified by a person doing more or less of what non-autistic people do. Some of the features which are associated with Autism, such as resistance to change, may simply be a result of stress. With support, we predict a new picture of Autism will emerge.” That new picture includes a growing recognition by industry of how people with Autism can offer added knowledge and provide original solutions through different or more fiercely applied ways of thinking and working.
It is currently estimated that there are over 20,000 people with Autism in Northern Ireland. A school census conducted in Northern Ireland in 2011/12 identified 4570 children on the Autistic Spectrum. Currently, Specialisterne NI, launched in April of last year, is working with around 100 people. Progress is necessarily slow, due to the time taken to ensure each placement is a success, but its successes are significant. All four of the participants in its Software Test Academy have found employment.
The Perspectives conference represents something of a new departure for Specialisterne NI. While much of the organisation’s previous effort has focussed on the IT industry, this event is aimed firmly at involving the creative sector. Sponsored by DCAL, with funding from the Arts Council NI, the event has so far attracted around 50 companies working in Northern Ireland’s creative industries, including those involved in web development, games development, animation, and film and video production.
As with IT companies, the overlap between skills required and characteristics displayed means that people on the Autistic Spectrum can offer much to the creative sector. Attention to detail, problem solving skills, working through of logical processes, an understanding of structure, persistence – all feature in the creative skills set. And the energies that can be released by a diverse workforce can only enhance the chances of a company’s success.
“When people with Autism are supported properly in the workplace, positive difference emerges,” says Sharon Didrichsen. “We have companies here in Northern Ireland that want to find out more. This conference is the official start of that conversation.”
Perspectives will take place at the Skainos Centre, on Newtownards Road, Belfast, Tuesday 31 March,12.15pm to 2pm.