As part of our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion project at OAS, we’ve appointed Adjust Services as our expert consultants on neurodiversity. Adjust will be helping us to make sure that every aspect of our learner journey supports neurodiverse people to be at their best.
We caught up with Founder and Director, Daniel Aherne, along with Neurodiversity Consultant, Natasha Catchpole, to talk about how they’ll be supporting the project, the strengths of neurodiversity, and why small changes can make a huge difference to improving neurodiverse people’s experiences.
Tell us a bit more about Adjust.
Daniel: We aim to give people a clear, practical and positive understanding of neurodiversity. We started Adjust about 5½ years ago, and since then we’ve worked with all sorts of different organisations, including educators. We’ve helped teams with recruitment, training their managers, and training their trainers amongst other things. Natasha and I have both worked in higher education too, ensuring access to reasonable adjustments for neurodiverse students.
Natasha: I’ve worked for Adjust for 3½ years and come from a positive view of neurodiversity. For me, it’s about looking at how we can unlock people’s potential and help others to better understand people who think differently. There isn’t enough awareness about the strengths of neurodiversity. I work with so many different people who are neurodiverse and don’t recognise their own strengths, and that having that label isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The reason they’re so good at doing X, Y and Z is because of the way they think – if they weren’t neurodiverse, then the likelihood is they wouldn’t be thinking in that way.
Why is this something that’s important to you?
Daniel: Twenty years ago, I wanted to be a social worker, and I was told that the best way to get into it was to start with some volunteering. I happened to work with an autistic boy, and that’s what took my career in that direction. I also spent time at the National Autistic Society, helping people to get into work. Only 22% of autistic people are in employment – when I started out it was only 15%, so it’s an improvement but still so low.
Autism isn’t the only form of neurodiversity of course, and at Adjust we focus on four different kinds: autism, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia. If you’re inclusive of those four areas of neurodiversity, we’d say you’re actually a very inclusive organisation. I can see how easily this group can be discriminated against, but the good thing is that it’s also so easy to change it. It’s not even about a massive overhaul, it’s really quite simple tweaks and changes in attitude. The challenge is that there are just so many different companies to work with and to effect the changes!
Natasha: I’ve worked with people who are neurodiverse for over 10 years now, and it’s really important to me that we all understand the truth about neurodiversity and what it really means.
I’m actually not neurodiverse myself, but it’s still important for other people who aren’t neurodiverse to understand neurodiversity. There are so many things in the media and society about what people think neurodiversity is, but people are naïve or uneducated about the reality – it’s not their fault, but we don’t know enough!
If more people understand and are educated about neurodiversity, people who are neurodiverse will have a much better experience. They so often lack confidence and self-esteem, feel stupid or that they don’t fit in, and generally have a very negative experience of being labelled as neurodiverse. I would love for that to change – instead of seeing dyslexia, for example, as someone who can’t read and write well, it would be great if people were aware of the whole picture, and that alongside the challenges come strengths and attributes that are really beneficial. For employers and training providers too, assuring neurodiverse people that you have an understanding, know what to do, how to help if they need help, and how to help them apply their strengths, is super important.
What are Adjust doing to help OAS?
Daniel: It’s exciting because OAS have given us a blank slate to put new structures and changes in place, so we’re not restricted to operating within the existing status quo. It’s also brilliant that the ED&I project is taking an intersectional approach, so we’re working holistically alongside inclusion experts in other focus areas, such as mental health and physical disability, to make sure that our actions and changes work for everyone.
Natasha: It’s very refreshing, and it’s great to be able to be quite creative. We love that we’ll be working in a true partnership, and that OAS is really open to our suggestions.
The first thing we’re doing is looking at the process to make sure a neurodiverse person is supported to be at their best. We’ll be exploring how OAS advertises roles all the way through to how apprentices are supported in the learning environment, assess whether current practices are neurodiverse inclusive, and make recommendations for improvements.
We’re going to be working with the OAS team to raise awareness about neurodiversity so that the learning experience is a positive one, for the learner as well as for the trainer – what neurodiversity looks like, how the team can support neurodiverse learners, and how to bring out their strengths as well as helping them to overcome their challenges.
We’re also creating a toolkit of resources for people to dip into as and when they need it. It’ll include things like extra support, strategies, advice and further information, as well as support for people who think they might be neurodiverse. I’m also always on hand to answer any questions and to make sure everyone at OAS feels supported through the process over the coming year.
Why is this partnership important?
Daniel: I massively believe in the talent that neurodiverse people can bring, and it’s being wasted because they can’t access training and therefore can’t access the jobs where their skills will make such a difference.
By helping OAS to be more inclusive, we’re helping underrepresented groups to access STEM careers. The talent is there – people just need some support in navigating the learning journey. And once they’ve gained the training that unlocks that career path, we’re helping to set up the future for those underrepresented groups. OAS is just the start of that journey for lots of people.
Natasha: That’s right, and we’re excited to be able to make a difference and hope to be a catalyst for change. It’s going to be great to work alongside OAS on this long-term project, to go on a journey together and to see how the changes we make work and the impact that they have. We’re here to support everyone through that process.
What will it mean for the OAS community?
Natasha: Hopefully it’ll mean that we create a really positive learning environment where there’s a clear process and everyone knows what to do and who to go to. We want the trainers to feel confident providing the right support, and for learners to know that they’re fully supported to shine at their brightest. We’re hoping to make this a continued experience throughout their apprenticeship and beyond too, by supporting employers to understand the steps they should take if they have neurodiverse staff, and how to help employers identify neurodiverse colleagues in the future so they can put the right support in place to bring out their best.
Daniel: Neurodiversity is everywhere, it’s not just something that exists in isolation. I’m sure some people reading this article have neurodiverse children, are neurodiverse themselves, or work with neurodiverse colleagues. I hope what we’re doing gives people hope, that they can see that we’re taking practical action to implement real changes. We recognise the talents of neurodiverse people at OAS, and I hope that this gives prospective apprentices confidence. We know you think differently, and we value that difference – you don’t have to hide who you are here.