English schoolteacher Katie Morley spent six weeks in Hawke’s Bay developing an understanding of the differences in transitions from school to employment within the New Zealand autism community. She writes about her experience.
SWAPPING THE British heatwave for the cooler temperatures of Napier in July was made easier by the warm welcome and New Zealanders’ willingness to help me.
At Springhallow College in the UK, where I am the assistant head teacher, I have developed a successful autism specific provision that aids transition from school into employment, further education or training.
I wanted to explore what New Zealand had to offer in terms of transition and preparation for adulthood specifically for those with a disability and seek what potential employment opportunities there are to transfer my skills and knowledge here.
During my six weeks, I made short trips to Auckland and Wellington, but having a base in Napier allowed me to quickly settle.
Within a few days of arriving, I was delighted to see a special needs’ holiday group exploring the Museum Theatre Gallery Hawke’s Bay Tai Ahuriri (formerly Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery)
This led to a lunch with the manager who invited me to talk to their staff and meet the school and students. Now back in the UK, I continue to network via email and online.
One of my initial observations was seeing New Zealanders’ desire to embed the Māori culture as an integral part of life in Aotearoa from the protection, partnership and participation principles of the Treaty to the four Māori health cornerstones of Te Whare Tapa Whā.
I was welcomed into schools, a day centre as well as a residential provision across a range of ages and disabilities. It is evident that each offer great support for those in need whether specialised or linked to a mainstream setting by people that are passionate to offer a varied curriculum and supportive environment.
Although there are similarities between the British and New Zealand systems, transition stages are slightly different.
In England, the Children and Families Act 2014 supports formally diagnosed autistics with a clear and structured Education Health and Care Plan from 0-25 years.
This is like the Individual Carer Plan except the transition from the Ministry of Education to Ministry of Social Development occurs at the age of 21.
With only 22 per cent of autistics in either full or part-time employment in 2020 in the UK (Office for National Statistics, 2020), limited data is available in New Zealand to indicate what the true percentage is here.
This suggests more should be done to understand the transition outcomes from education into meaningful employment.
Improving the lives of autistic unemployed, underemployed and underpaid through transition
Transitions can often be a daunting process for families and autistics alike. However, it is widely known that employment provides adults with financial security, daily structure, sense of worth, regular supportive social engagement, and is associated with better mental well-being and lower rates of depression and suicide. Therefore, when managed well this can be realistic.
With employment as an outcome, there are often two parties: the employer and the employee.
Many businesses are unwilling to hire autistic candidates as they are often concerned about the increase in supervision costs and a decrease in productivity (Solomon, 2020).
This is a bias based on misperceptions; the financial and social benefits of hiring autistic adults, for businesses and the individual, often outweigh the costs.
However often the reality is that autistics experience symptoms that often can be perceived as barriers to employment. Therefore, these barriers should be challenged from a different perspective.
As I have observed in the UK, finding a strategy that supports both parties using a comprehensive employment programme early through planning, can alter the misperception that often exists. All too often the focus is on the student only until they leave.
Community engagement was an area of real opportunity for me.
When I asked one manager, they explained to me that New Zealand had evolved in the past 10 years to ensure autistics are not ‘stigmatised’ so avoid labels or being identified as ‘disabled’ in the community so rarely promote their presence and capabilities.
Whilst another explained they do not want autistics to feel different.
My challenge would be ‘How can we normalise and embrace differences in people if it is not seen?’
If autistics have a presence in the community early, transition into adulthood and employment will be less of a challenge.
In the UK, autistics embrace their disability when supported and are less fearful of the potential label.
They develop a personal understanding of their strengths and challenges for their own identity.
Māori believe it takes a village to raise a child, therefore as a village I encourage you to embrace the strengths of these rangatahi.
What does transition look like?
My belief as an educator is to prepare students early with the tools they need to live a purposeful life and to develop a culture that instils a work ethic as a normality.
Like a tradesman needs the necessary tools to complete a DIY job, everyone needs ‘tools’ that represent the key qualities and skills required to perform a role in society which include confidence, self-esteem, independence etc.
What works well at Springhallow in the UK, more so post Covid, is the platform we offer early including ‘work experience’ opportunities within the school setting to ‘bank hours’ of experience.
If autistics develop skills in a safe and supported environment first, this will help develop soft skills and basic qualities employers desire later.
Once established, an ‘Employee Passport’ can be developed by understanding capabilities and challenges and what would benefit employers.
Having an awareness of special interests; need for regular breaks; avoidance of loud noises or willingness to wear a uniform, are all examples of work related information that is relevant that can be reviewed annually and developed through target setting.
A further suggestion would be to potentially rebrand ‘teacher aides’ as ‘job coaches’ from the age of 16 to create a work-focused culture.
In the autism community in the UK, we believe everyone has unique skills and qualities to offer and companies are increasingly recognising that committing to working towards a more diverse and inclusive workplace is critical to success, by tapping into the talent pool of neurodivergent people.
Therefore, it is imperative to positively bridge the disability employment gap between the disabled and non-disabled. To do this we seek opportunities to build relationships with employers by showing them there is a supportive culture from start to finish.
Build trust that mutually supports all parties and celebrate any wins from social media recognitions to training opportunities.
It is also crucial that services are trained in autism and prepared to adapt to their needs so regular continuous professional development is a prerequisite with a growth mind set.
Therefore, transition should be forward thinking.
Focus on the three ‘Ps’:
Whilst I have observed some excellent practices within the autism community, more needs to be done to improve the statistics through research and understanding.
This includes both New Zealand and the UK.
I personally would be excited to be a part of how New Zealand improves their transition and preparation into adulthood when managed well.
- Katie Morley, 40, is assistant head teacher of Springhallow School Post 16, Greenford, a suburb in the London Borough of Ealing.
- Springhallow Post 16 offers a tailored programme to autistic students aged 16-19.
- Katie was based in Hawke’s Bay for six weeks during July and August 2022.
- She believes her skills and knowledge could be put to effective use in New Zealand.
Office for National Statistics (2020) Outcomes for disabled people in the UK: 2020.
Solomon C. (2020). Autism and Employment: Implications for Employers and Adults with ASD. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 50(11), 4209–4217. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04537-w