Supported internships

Candidate beware

By Max ToperJuly 29, 2022 260  11 min read Autism  

There aren’t many work placements for those on the autism spectrum. What I mean by work placement is typically a supported, paid or unpaid setting for those who have the cognitive ability to work, are leaving school, and diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Sometimes the prospect of going to university, finding work, or an apprenticeship are not possible for these individuals, usually because of socio-economic reasons. However, these individuals also want to work, but may benefit from a supported transition into the workplace.

Last year, the job market in my local area wasn’t all that brilliant. We still had some lockdown measures in place. And the only job available to me was a midnight shift in a fast-food restaurant, in a dodgy area. At that point I was considering university, but hadn’t looked properly at all the options and knew I wouldn’t enjoy an overly academic institution.

Apprenticeships had dried up too. A couple of my friends applied to them alongside me and none of them got one. I was now eighteen, and too old to go back to a sixth form setting, and the local sixth form college wasn’t my first choice for sure. (Though that’s a topic for another blog post!)

The other option was a supported internship program for individuals on the autism spectrum. Note they weren’t specific on which part of the vast spectrum they were targeting. This will be important later. I’d heard of this option before, but initially dismissed in my mind because of how limited these placements were and how little information there was about them beyond a few bullet points.

To sum it up, they involve limited roles like being a receptionist and usually take place in a hospital, charity run cafe, or charity shop. Someone, a “work buddy” oversees the candidate taking part in the program, just in case the situation grows too much for them. For virtue of me being on the spectrum and known to the local authority, they contacted my parents about one of these programs now expanding to my borough.

By this point in the summer, I was weeks away from leaving my specialist placement and still hadn’t found a job, even with my qualifications as a junior computer engineer. The few computer repair gigs I’d come by were helpful, but not enough to sustain me if I wished to be at the very least financially independent. So I took a chance on the program.

My parents seemed relieved, and though skeptical, I like to believe in giving everything a fair chance when I can. They gave us specific instructions about attending an interview at an arts-center. I agreed to go alone with the documents they requested. (A copy of a CV and my EHCP.) Observant readers may note that some individuals on the spectrum wouldn’t be able to conceive the concept of a job or CV. You may also note that others may not organise one or advocate for themselves well in an interview setting.

Or to put it another way, asking for a CV made little sense when you consider the wide target demographic for the programme.

The fabled day of the interview came. And I got struck by a severe cold. (No, I didn’t have COVID-19. I’m sure of that.) Because I wouldn’t get another chance like this, I still went on the train that morning. Most, if not all, of the other participants had come along with their parents. Albeit, it surprised the staff who greeted me anyone had even come at all.

(I should clarify they were staff from the programme, not the arts center. The arts center was just where the interview was being conducted.)

Let’s call the staff members who greeted me… Jesse and James. Like the famous outlaw.

The first red flag was when Jesse started talking to me like I was four years old. ‘Hello Max. Wow. I really love your shirt. It’s so smart. Do you choose your clothes yourself?’

‘Hi Jesse. Yeah, I try to choose my own clothes when I can, haha.’ I replied.

‘You’re so good at it. Isn’t he good at it, James?’

Lady. I’m not a dog.

The internship programme said I could get a years work experience in an IT department in the NHS before moving to a full time paid role there within a year and provided I completed the program. They’d also help me finish up getting a level three maths qualification, which would have been nice to have.

This would’ve been a great opportunity for me to get in on my chosen field. So whatever Jesse and James said wasn’t worth starting a grievance over.

We went inside with the other participants and their parents. ‘James, I do have a bit of a cold. So I may not be at 100% today,’ I explained.

James nodded, taking it in.

Shortly there after another problem emerged. An ID badge opened the doors to the building. None of the staff from the programme had this badge, and we had to wait for James to come back with someone who did to open the door.

Inside the room they’d arranged were two other staff members. Keeping in with the theme of outlaws, I’ll call them Ned and Kelly, respectively. Their pupils dilated when they saw how many candidates there were who wanted to get onto the programme. Fifteen people and they only had three places available for the year.

Jesse got down to business and had all the parents leave. With the wide range of people in attendance, some with quite significant learning and intellectual disabilities, others with separation anxiety, this took a good half hour. Next, they had us wear what Jesse called, “very special name badges.” (Really just a sticky label with our names written on it. Reality is often disappointing, no?)

Red flag number two. Not everyone in attendance had the cognitive ability to write their name. Some had speech difficulties. One man, aged about twenty-three, couldn’t stop talking about hot chocolate, so they had to get his name off his father. I should say, I felt sorry for this family most of all. The father was really trying to sell his son to the programme. He told Jesse how there were no alternative placements and this was his last chance to find something suitable for a good long while.

Later on, after all the parents had left, I heard Kelly and Jesse talking openly about how his son was a “non starter.” Throughout the day, they ignored the young man and placed him alone at the back of the room. The thought of telling the young mans father about this crossed my mind, but by the time he returned I had little energy left and I couldn’t have done it without the staff noticing.

As for the actual interview. There wasn’t one. At least, not one I’d ever regard as a proper interview. When the parents left, Jesse stood up in front of us and harped on about one of us, winning a “special teddy.” She took a stuffed animal out of a bag, waved it around in front of us, and did a silly voice.

I want you to take a step back for a moment. And picture yourself doing this unironically in front of a group of 16-25-year-olds. If you cringe internally, you are more in touch with reality than this woman was that fine summer’s day. (It was actually miserable and raining, but that’s the British Isles for you.)

Much of that day is a blur to me. But to sum it up, it was like being back in reception. We played a series of what we were told were “fun games.” Fun games like:

Finding newspaper articles.

Chinese whispers.

Two truths and a lie. But you had to go up to the front and speak your truths and a lie in front of everyone. Anyone who refused to do this, even if they weren’t cognitively able to, was verbally reprimanded and not so silently labelled “non starters,” by the staff. To give you a greater idea of the absurdity, two teenage girls were told off for the crime of whispering to each other.

The staff were whispering about certain candidates the whole time. So this was quite hypocritical, if you ask me. For my part in things, I did what any eighteen-year-old would do and texted my friends, complaining about the way things were turning out.

Now those three games took us until lunch to complete, about three hours. Looking at the text messages I sent on the day, I’d say about an hour per game. The staff let us break for lunch. It took time to get out of the building, and I had to give James my phone number and tell him where I was going in case I got any funny ideas about running off.

The only thing holding up my end of the deal was that I’d get to work in an IT department in the NHS. I was optimistic and knew these staff members probably weren’t a representation of the whole programme. So I soldiered on, my cold chipping away at my stamina more and more. Even the simple act of sitting down had become less and less bearable. I needed to switch off, but I also needed a job.

I pushed myself beyond my limits that day. Even building “the best LEGO cube” Kelly had ever seen. The last activity was writing a short story. I could knock that one out in five minutes. If they let me use a laptop or my phone to do it. My handwriting isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s functional. I can fill out forms, do birthday cards, and write my name.

But my condition makes it impractical for me to write long pieces by hand. Sure I can do it, but it would take hours and I’d be fatigued by the end. With my cold, this wasn’t an option. I fought Kelly on this for a while, and though she protested, calling me out on “unacceptable behaviour,” she eventually had to concede and scribe for me.

Now not only had I created the best LEGO cube of all time, but the best story of all time. Then they went back to ignoring me. All the while, they knew I had a cold. I told them multiple times, and yet they still told me I had to “wait my turn for an interview.” Under normal circumstances, I would appreciate this. Here are some reasons I didn’t and still don’t:

They’d spent six hours of my time doing nothing relevant to the job or programme.

Talked down to me.

Talked unfairly about other candidates.

I had a cold and badly needed to go home.

After explaining my situation multiple times, and arguing with them many more, Kelly and Ned interviewed me. By the time I left the building, it was four something o’clock. And that holy grail of an interview? They didn’t understand my qualifications or my CV. I don’t even think they properly read my EHCP or understood what my needs were.

I did actually record the interview/confrontation (because in my experience you can never be too careful) and gave Kelly the best telling off I could in my cold, afflicted state. She was none too pleased, but eventually conceded my points and admitted they weren’t prepared at all for that day.

By the end, they created an extra place for me on the programme. But something was still off in the report they sent home about me. Please see the image below.

I dispute every single one of these points.

I wasn’t resistant; I took part in all the activities, even though I wasn’t in the best of health. They also say the laptop was part of one of these activities. But that it took place in the beginning. The story writing activity took place after lunch. Unless the first few hours just didn’t happen, using the word beginning doesn’t add up.

I also have a disability. This program is for those with disabilities. Shouldn’t you be more understanding of someone with a disability like, gee, I don’t know, dyspraxia? Or perhaps if you allowed me to just type it out on my phone, there would be no need for a scribe?

I’m also curious about the not engaging and only doing what I wanted to do parts. I had valid reasons for being less of myself that day, and as per the (now long since deleted) recording, Kelly conceded that I had taken part in all activities and had actually pushed myself beyond my limits for that day.

As for the “not interested” bit. It was a little challenging to be interested in finding newspaper articles, given the environment and my state of health.

After my parents received this untrue report about me, I did some research into the programme. And after some digging, I found the London programme was not as well resourced as its Midlands and Yorkshire counterparts. Yet they were still advertising things they couldn’t accomplish for the London candidates. This included the IT department.

The moment James called my mobile and told me I would bring people coffee and do spreadsheets, I walked and went for the sixth form college option. More on how that went in a blog post to come.

What can we learn from this total fiasco then?

Do your research before you personally, or sign someone else up on their behalf for one of these programmes. Ask the important questions. Make sure you or the candidate in question is valued. Don’t let them rebuff you.

The most important question you can ask is who the program is actually for. Autism is a wide spectrum, I would say too wide. Is the programme for those with mild learning disabilities? Or someone who is cognitively able but just needs an extra push to help them get over the line and apply themselves?

If the program isn’t perfect but willing to accept you (or a candidate you put forward) do the costs of joining the programme outweigh the benefits or alternatives?

I know there are individuals who would benefit from programmes like this. But they need to be better resourced and prepared. The staff being surprised this many candidates would show up is a sign that some of these programmes don’t seem in touch with the supply and demand complexities. If they could have just been a little better prepared and more specific about the candidates they expected from the wide autism spectrum, that day would have gone a hell of a lot smoother.