Asperger Management has joined together with the Careers Service at Nottingham University in the UK, to run a Transitions Programme for four students with Asperger syndrome.
The aim is to provide a framework that will allow students to work through a structured process in their career and job search process. This will enable them to effectively explore some of the different traits inherent within Asperger syndrome and how they impact on the careers selection process.
Today I talk about the project with Peter Kay, Careers Advisor at the Careers Service at Nottingham University about the project to date, what lessons have been learned and its future potential going forward.
MJ: a University Careers Service deals with a variety of “disabilities” or special needs amongst its students – dyslexia, mental health, hearing and visual impairment etc. Can you give some indication as to what accommodations and specialist support you provide in the careers search process in this area?
PK: The Careers Service works closely with the academic support service (a team of specialists who support students with disabilities whilst at Nottingham) and students are either referred or self refer to the careers service.
Careers Advisers work with students on a wide range of issues from course change, disclosure on job applications and at interviews to careers guidance. We also notify students of vacancies/schemes that are specifically aimed at students with disabilities. We also organise workshops and presentations from a variety of organisations who offer specialist support services such as Blind in Business, Employability.
MJ: will the process differ in any marked way for student’s with AS?
PK: not really, However, since the Asperger Transition Project began we have seen an increase in students with Asperger/Autistic spectrum make contact with the service and discuss issues mentioned above.
MJ: prior to commencing the Transitions Programme, what did you know about Asperger syndrome and does it differ in any particular way to other disabilities from a careers perspective?
PK: I had some knowledge of Asperger prior to the project commencing. What I have by understanding Asperger and how it presents itself, as enabled me to communicate more effectively with this particular group of students, which in turn has enabled me to better meet their needs.
MJ: I know you were particularly keen to pilot a programme for students with Asperger syndrome? Could you provide some insight into why this was please?
Support for students with disabilities at Nottingham is very good and student groups (dyslexia, mental health etc) have been set up by the Academic Support Service.
The issue’s dealt with by these groups centre on their student experience such as study skills, accommodation, alternative formats and so on.
I wanted to run a careers based project and trial it with students that I had not worked with before in a group environment.. A lot of my work with students is on a one-to-one basis and I had worked with individuals with Asperger in the past.
To work with a group over a period of time, get to know them, understand their issues and assist their personal and career planning was exciting and innovative and had not been tried at Nottingham. There are examples of some Careers Services working with Asperger students but, as far as I’m aware, they had not focused on Employment issues such as the working environment, relationships with colleagues etc.
MJ: what have been the key benefits and lessons learned so far from the programme and in what ways have the students themselves benefited? If you could give any specific feedback that you have gained from students it would also be especially interesting and useful.
PK: The students have been very positive in the sessions however, they have not provided any formal evaluation as yet. The evaluation is to take place over the summer.
As for the lessons learnt? On a personal level I have learnt a lot more about Asperger and how to work with students who have Asperger. I am more receptive to their specific needs.
MJ: I would like to also explore the project from the perspective of employers. Can you give some insight into the current position of employers with regard to accommodating the applications of students with special needs? Do they, in your opinion, treat them fairly and make reasonable and effective adjustments for students they recruit in this area and what can be done to support them more effectively?
PK: I would hope that employers would treat all applications fairly irrespective of who they are from. Equality and Diversity in the work place is very important and, in my experience, larger organisations are better placed to ensure that applicants and employees are treated fairly. Organisations such the Employers Forum on Disability are very active in promoting and tackling disability issues in the work place.
Having said all of that, in my view, it is still the case that a disabled applicant still feels that they have extra hurdles to jump over in order to be seen as a capable applicant. They feel that they have to explain their disability first and their potential second.
However well meaning a recruiter is, if they have little contact with disability or do not know how a particular disability presents itself then the applicant may not get a fair hearing.
MJ: moving onto the wider potential of the Transitions Project. I believe that you intend to present its findings to the Higher Education Careers Conference in September. What do you hope the outcome will be of this, and how do you see the project rolling out across the UK Higher Education sector in general?
PK: A project such as this could be run successfully for students in other institutions. The course can also help Advisers and Employers understand the issues for Asperger students when making the transition from University into the workplace.
MJ: how can the UK University Careers Service assist students with Asperger syndrome in finding suitable career placements and what specifically can it do in relation to the condition in your view?
PK: Understanding Asperger syndrome better will help Careers Services work effectively with the student and will facilitate advocacy to potential employers.
MJ: as someone who is working with people with AS for the first time, and from what you have gleaned from the project to date, are there any specific careers or job areas would particularly suit a person with Asperger syndrome?
PK: The students we have worked with have preferred to consider work within very tight parameters such as academic or technical environments. They prefer to work in academia because they study subjects that play to their strengths such as analytical and systems based, work. They can predominately work on individualised projects (scientific, engineering research) in an environment they feel they have control over to a certain degree (laboratory)
Others have preferred technical roles such as IT, Information Management. The students appreciate that one works in a collaborative environment and the need for communication is necessary, but the students are clearly choosing careers and organisations that can accommodate their special skills and abilities. They are very keen to avoid target based employment such as sales and environments that require a lot of client contact that deal with emotions such as people facing roles – teaching, youth work etc.
MJ: finally, the programme is to be submitted I believe to the UK Government as part of its consultation process for its Adults with Autism Strategy – A Better Future – that it is currently undertaking. The paper includes employment and training as two of its five key points of investigation. What specifically would you like to see included from a higher education perspective with regard to these areas?
PK: I would like to see a course such as ours held up as an exemplar to the sector and for the sector to develop its provision and understanding of students with Asperger and how one can meet their needs.
I would hope employers would also increase their understanding of Asperger so that current employees and future employees can reach their potential. Too many people with disabilities, Asperger included, find themselves isolated and marginalised and fail to reach their potential. I would hope that our project and the potential government strategy goes some way to redress the balance.