We are delighted that we have been able to support Kirsty Hamiliton to become our paid Talking Mats office junior. As Kirsty was leaving school she wanted to get some experience doing real work but this is a challenge for her as she has severe autism. The social interaction and pace of change involved in a busy office is not easy for her, but she likes sorting and organising things, so we decided to give it a go. We have to confess that Joan and I needed some persuasion. At that time we were busy setting up Talking Mats as a start-up social enterprise and taking on an additional commitment added further complexity to our initial phase of getting started .However, Margo who was one of our associates and also worked with Kirsty in her NHS job is persuasive and we gave it a go!
It has not always been plain sailing. There were challenges; initially, Kirsty only managed to volunteer for an hour at a time and needed significant support to help her manage that. Through having a structured environment, Kirsty moved to volunteering for two hours a week and lots of progress made both in the tasks performed but also level of supervision required. Her support worker no longer stays with her in the office. Karen our Talking Mats Training Administrator is responsible for her work and once a task is set up Kirsty works on them independently.
There have been huge benefits to Talking Mats and they have outweighed the difficulties. We have someone who
- has an eye for detail
- who likes putting things into sets; a huge advantage if you are working with symbols
- who can work at speed and with great focus on visual tasks that the rest of us find hard,
- who is reliable and comes to her work every week
- who keeps us grounded by reminding us of our core business i.e. to improve the lives of people with communication difficulties
We have also learnt a lot about supporting someone with severe autism in to work and we would like to ask other organisations and companies to think about whether they have opportunities that people with communication disability can take advantage of. It has really made me reflect on my time in the NHS as a Speech and language therapy manager. Despite the investment that the NHS makes to people with learning disability, there are limited opportunities for employment for people with autism and learning disability in statutory services, yet we are sure staff have the skills to support this. We have no doubt that Kirsty’s social and communication skills have grown hugely in her time with us. We think statutory services are missing a huge opportunity to make a real difference to an individual’s health and well-being that will begin to challenge the continued current health inequalities that exist.
We are proud that Kirsty has moved from volunteer to paid status and proud of all the team at Talking Mats that has enabled this to happen. She’s a great colleague to have in our social enterprise .