An employment scheme for people with Asperger’s syndrome has brought them opportunities at one of the world’s biggest finance houses. Anabel Unity Sale reports
Nearly two weeks after most of Britain returned from its extended holiday break of consumption and excess, one group remains at home, eager for work, capable of doing it, but unlikely to get any. It’s another year of disappointment for some people with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism which affects the communication skills of those with the condition and reduces their chances of impressing prospective employers in job interviews.
So acute is the problem that just 12 per cent of adults with Asperger’s are in fulltime employment. With this in mind, the National Autistic Society (NAS) established the Transitions project to provide internships with mainstream employers.
Launched in April 2005, Transitions is part of NAS’s employment and training service, Prospects, which helps support clients with autism prepare for, find and retain employment. Transitions aims to find intern placements for people in their final year at college or university or for those who have recently graduated. It is funded by the London Development Agency and the European Social Fund for a two-and-a-half- year period and, as part of the requirements, deals only with people who live in London and wish to work there.
One of the 10 organisations taking part in Transitions is the bank Goldman Sachs International.
Community Care spoke to three people involved in the scheme to find out what impact it is having.
Justin Penney is the National Autistic Society’s Transtitions project consultant and works with students to find them paid internships or permanent work. For him the scheme’s purpose is simple: “It is about doing a job and earning money, the sorts of things we all take for granted.”
Since the project launched, Penney has seen 38 people with Asperger’s syndrome seeking employment opportunities. He works with clients for “as long as it takes” to find them the right opening and if he doesn’t manage this he puts them in touch with other agencies.
The internships last between four weeks and a year and often have a dramatic impact on the person.
“It can give them immense self-confidence,” Penney says. “They may not have been sure what they can get from work and having the opportunity to do different things helps them discover this.”
The initiative not only benefits NAS’s clients but also the employers, who “can see that people with Asperger’s are just as good as everybody else. As the disability is communication, our clients can demonstrate to employers what they can do rather than have to explain themselves.”
Goldman Sachs became the first firm to run with NAS’s Transitions project as a pilot four years ago. It gave an individual with Asperger’s a short-term placement and Penney says it went so well the scheme is a regular fixture at the bank: “Goldman Sachs is community-minded and will give something a go if it’s not been done before.”
NAS liaises with and speaks to the staff working alongside the NAS client undertaking the internship so they know what to expect and how best to meet the individual’s working needs. Penney says simple things such as e-mailing the person instead of speaking to them, providing them with a structure and clear information on their duties, make it easier for them to work effectively.
● Transitions can be contacted on 020 7704 7450.
If it wasn’t for a choir, Goldman Sachs would never have become involved in Transitions.
Four years ago Richard Bremer, a strategist in its investment banking division and a member of the EC4 music choir and orchestra at St Bride’s Church, City of London, was chatting with his friend, Tim Olsen, who was connected with NAS’s Prospects service.
He suggested Bremer ask Goldman Sachs to offer work experience to someone with Asperger’s. After many discussions with senior managers, Bremer won the go-ahead and in January 2003 the first person with Asperger’s joined the bank for a four-week pilot. He was 16, a school leaver and had never worked. His placement was so successful it was extended for four more weeks and, after leaving Goldman Sachs, he was offered his first job.
NAS asked Bremer whether he would take on a second person. He agreed, although, he says, “we weren’t initially thinking of running a long-term programme, we just wanted to help out”.
Again this was a constructive experience and the bank decided to make the pilot more formal. Now Goldman Sachs operates four internships a year. Bremer says employing people with disabilities helps raise awareness among staff. “It is imperative to put things back into society. The Transitions project helps breeds tolerance in the workplace in an intensely competitive industry.”
The scheme has resulted in other Goldman Sachs employees coming forward and saying their families have experiences of autism and they want to help too. For Bremer, it is all good. “Because of the successes of the programme within the firm we would very much encourage other companies to consider becoming involved in it.”
Jonathan Young’s business card describes him as business analyst for Goldman Sachs. It is a job title that means an awful lot to the 28-year-old from the London Borough of Croydon.
Young was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 18, just before he sat his A-levels. Growing up he says he felt “very isolated” and knew he was different. “It was difficult, people thought I was stupid. Socially I didn’t interact very well.”
Despite his degree in geography from Kingston University, his struggle to find full-time work was rewarded with only two interviews (including MI5, where he passed the application process and logic test). “I got the impression I was discriminated against by employers, even though they said they weren’t being like that.”
Young turned to NAS for help. In November 2003 he began a six-week paid placement at Goldman Sachs, collecting data and company information for Bremer’s team. For the first time, Young felt comfortable about working. He says: “Goldman Sachs was different. I was treated very fairly and I felt part of the team. They seemed to really appreciate what I was doing.”
When his internship ended, the contacts Young had made at the bank helped him to get two weeks’ work in March 2004 with Luther Pendragon, a communications consultancy. In September the same year Goldman Sachs approached NAS again, requesting that Young join them to develop and maintain a database. After repeatedly extending his temporary contract and widening his duties, the bank took him on permanently last October.
“My job has made me more confident,” he says. “I have found my strengths and am doing well at my job. It satisfies me and I’ve not felt this in a workplace before.”
Contact the author
Anabel Unity Sale
This article appeared in the 11th January issue under the headline “Job seekers bank draft”
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