Last week we looked at the challenges, success and future hopes of autistic special support assistant Jack Kilday working in a special needs college. Here his line manager talks about the huge contribution Jack makes in the classroom, the special attributes of autism, and the [empathetic] slightly different management approach to meet the needs of autistic staff.
Like any potential recruits, autistic people determined to teach in college will want to try to pre-empt questions put to them both at application and, hopefully, interview stage. What helps is imagining an interview through the eyes of the hiring manager with all their hopes, fears, goals and checklists guiding their decision on who to hire.
Gillian Seville, learning and care manager at Hedleys College, has been Jack Kilday’s line manager since he joined in 2016. “He did not have much experience and he seemed really anxious and nervous, but there was something about him at interview in the way he answered questions. My colleague and I said: ‘Yes, let’s give him a try.’
“We decide who to recruit based on attitude, accessibility and experience - although I’ve taken on individuals who have lacked any experience but have that enthusiasm to work in special needs. We always look for the same qualities - an understanding of autism [Hedleys College caters for many autistic students], a willingness to learn and be part of a team, and the ability to handle any problems as they arise. We also look for honesty - so that if they have concerns and problems stemming from their own autism, they will tell you.”
To keep the recruitment process scrupulously fair, any details of health conditions in application forms of shortlisted candidates are removed before they are sent to interviewers. It’s a level playing field at Hedleys.
Autistic employees may sometimes require a bit more support of their manager or other staff members than non-autistic recruits - not every minute of the day but sometimes long-term. They will, for instance, need slightly longer to process new instructions, eg when their routine changes as in changing groups at the start of the academic year. “But they get there in the end,” says Gillian, “as long as they have a manager aware of their condition, who takes things more slowly and knows their needs.”
So how does Gillian encourage the best out of Jack as a staffer? “You build up a relationship with him. Jack knows he can come and talk to us if there’s a problem. He’s not been upset if he’s needed support and I’ve then worked alongside him.”
Gillian has also got to know the signs if Jack needs help: “He’ll start talking very fast, get extremely fidgety or just look anxious. He has got quite worried at times - so instead of working full-time he currently works four days a week. But he’s progressed well. He’s now such an excellent support worker that he only occasionally needs extra help from colleagues.
“Staff really respect and understand him and he feels comfortable working with colleagues in his group of students. The other day Jack discovered a member of his team was missing so he said he might need help during lunchtime because medication had to be given. But he’s very confident - he was told his colleagues would be along to help but when the time came he thanked them but said he was ok - he knew support was there if he needed it.”
But Gillian does say she would not put Jack in a group of staff he did not know. Working with staff he knows and in a familiar environment is important. “If he’s not working in the right team, he can become anxious. Colleges need to be flexible to meet an autistic individual’s needs - as they would with any member of staff.”
Are there particular positives that autistic people can bring to the workplace? “Jack is very kind and honest with a caring nature. He’s really wanted to work in this environment and profession; for him it was not about just ticking a box, thinking ‘I need a job’ and applying for everything.
“Autistic people tend to be more focused and they will tell you how things are and when something is not right. You know exactly what’s going on.”
One of Jack’s strengths is never letting down colleagues. “He’ll do anything you’d ask and does the job to best of his ability; and sometimes he’s very hard on himself in situations where other staff would not be.
“He’s built up a fantastic relationship with the students. He’s very competent and really excels - we had a series of training sessions on Microsoft computers and he taught an enrichment session after coming back from an outside training session he attended with other service users.”
One thing Gillian does stress is not to assume a new recruit who is autistic will be up and running after induction - they’ll need that extra bit of guidance and processing time to take in any big changes and grow in confidence to become fully competent members of staff.
“Be patient and initially set autistic staff small targets,: she advises. “See how each of their first few weeks have gone by, one at a time. It does eventually all come together. I’ve never looked back after Jack was appointed. He’s been an excellent team member.”