#AUTISM – One word to describe millions of experiences
I’d like to introduce you to K. At the time of writing this, K is probably getting very wet, wrestling a highly powered chainsaw, in the middle of a wood somewhere in Bradford, Yorkshire. And he’ll be loving every minute of it!
I’m extremely pleased to tell you that today marks the first day of a new career for K.
A proper job with a contract, pension, real responsibility and a much wider, brighter possibilities for the future.
Leaving behind all the meetings, assessments, reviews, reports and restrictions to prove for himself and everyone else that he can do it.
Today K becomes a full time Arborist (tree surgeon for the uninitiated!) and although he knows that all the hard work starts here, he can also congratulate himself on the obstacles he’s overcome to get this far.
It’s with great thanks to K that he’s letting me include some of his experiences along the way. We do this with hope that it not only inspires others to do the same, but also helps to give people ideas of alternative pathways and resources available outside the ‘medical model’ approaches adopted in ‘Service-land’ and ‘Education’.
We both hope that others who may have found themselves in a similar position will benefit from his experiences.
K ‘s family are also happy for me to share some of the battles they’ve had to fight, and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way in helping their son grow and learn to take more and more responsibility for himself, his life and his future.
You see the future didn’t always seem so bright for K. He didn’t always feel this open to possibility and opportunity.
K was diagnosed with Autism and ADHD whilst he was still at school. He struggled to engage in classes and attend school regularly and attended several pupil referral units before disengaging with education completely. It’s important to note; that although K did eventually get an Educational Healthcare plan and Health and Social Care input; there didn’t seem to be any significant support available for K. The Education system stuck in a traditional model of building based ‘head’ learning, and the Social Care system only able to offer significant support to people in crisis or with critical need.
The myth and madness of ‘normal’
K’s experiences had left him feeling somewhat ‘out-cast’, labelled and stuck. Living in a limbo-land of not quite being ‘normal’ enough to submit passively to the tyrannical treadmill of education. At the same time being not quite ‘ab-normal’ enough to warrant any significant or indeed practically useful help or support; that recognised his needs and aspirations equally.
Despite knowing from an early age that he had a love for working with trees and wanted to become a tree surgeon, he’d never got any closer than doing some voluntary work litter picking in a park and some college-based courses that he found difficult to attend and engage with.
K didn’t know what to do next, the future seemed bleak.
It’s worth mentioning at this point just how strong and close K’s family are.
K lives at home with an older brother, 2 younger brothers and a younger sister, along with Mum and Dad. K’s 2 younger brothers and sister also have a diagnosis of Autism, along with K’s Dad.
K’s Mum and Dad deserve a special mention. Not only have they had to become experts in the policies and procedures of the Education system, the Health and Social Care system and the Legal system. They’ve also managed to bring up 5 children and build a strong family unit that clearly loves, cares for and supports each other.
K recognises he is one of the lucky ones. He has a strong family behind him. To attend meeting after meeting, to push him, to stand up for him and to him, to challenge decisions in the face of decision makers, ‘experts’ and authorities.
K’s parents have spent thousands of pounds over the years. On legal support and representation, assessments and advice. However plans and meetings never seemed to amount to more than promises that never seemed to come to fruition. And through that process of challenging at some points found themselves under the microscope of Services and Educational authorities.
It was in January 2020 K’s dad decided to get in touch with us.
5 years previously I’d gone to meet K and went for a game of snooker with him and a chat. He’d just passed his driving test and was thinking about his future. This was originally through an introduction via an organisation who was working with him at that time. We didn’t start to work together due to a disagreement with the organisation working with him (with me!). K and his dad had remembered me, and felt that I may be able to offer them some help and support.
K’s dad explained that he and his family had been left in a mess. K was no further on than he was 5 years ago and things were getting worse. To the point they were finding it more and more difficult to live together. I agreed to go and meet K and we had a chat about what life was like at the moment and how they would like it to be different.
Knowing what you want
We arranged to meet up a for a few hours per week and get to know each other a little better. whilst we discussed what K wanted from our help and what we could offer.
I was conscious that I wanted to make the experience different for K. To help him break some of his beliefs about what’s possible and help him explore what Autism and ADHD meant to him. It was clear that K knew exactly what he wanted, even though his past experiences had now made it seem almost impossible.
Over the weeks and months, we spent a few hours a week getting to know each other.
K beat me several times at snooker and we also worked through some stuff to make living at home easier, together with his family. We started to think about what skills K would need to build up for himself to live more of the kind of life that he wanted.
We started looking for opportunities for K to get some real work experience so he could learn those skills and actually and start to feel like he was moving and doing something constructive.
We have all the resources we need, if not we can create them
Now it could just be luck, and it could be our universes aligning, but after a while we managed to get a an opportunity for K with a local tree surgeon/landscaper.
He was willing to meet with us to have a chat about what K was looking for and agreed to let us both join him e to get some ‘hands on’ experience. Once we’d checked out and followed the procedures for permitted work (K was on ESA at the time). We agreed some dates and started the journey.
Now I have some really fond memories of being dripping wet in the middle of a fields somewhere in Yorkshire. Reassembling 300 year old dry stone walls. Dragging the brash of old damaged oak trees up the embankment of rivers in the blazing sun.
Riding in the back of a buggy across huge country estates, feeling like I should be seeing a dinosaur over the next hill as we go (and yes I did play the theme music ;-)).
It was amazing. We learned so much about forestry and building drystone walls and patios. Over the next few months we managed to get some real experience, really doing what K wanted to do, and concrete opportunities to practise and develop the skills that support it.
The point is…
We didn’t just talk about it. We didn’t just hook him up with something ‘like’ work experience and let him get on with it. We experienced and learnt it together.
Yes, there were challenges and yes, there were times things didn’t quite work out how we thought they would, but we were working towards what K wanted to do and making good progress., At the same time building the skills and relationships to support and maintain it; We were connecting with real people, in real situations, taking real risks and growing and learning with every challenge
We had a concrete base for developing a routine and good habits, looking after yourself, getting up early, doing things you sometimes don’t want to! …It was a great learning experience for us all.
Then COVID hit, and although we did what we could to maintain the work things slowed down and we all got locked down. Our contact stopped returning my calls and K once again found himself stuck.
Although this time it was different. There was still hope, there was confidence and faith building, and there were plans to get things moving just as soon as we could.
We put the net out again, and again, very soon, we got another opportunity.
Now I want to say a massive thanks to P (he knows who he is) for answering my email and for giving K the opportunity come along to do some work with him in a way that really worked for K. P replied to my email offering to meet K and I to have a chat. He was really keen to give K an opportunity and could really empathise with K and his past experiences. P agreed to give K a couple of days per week, where he and I could join P and his team to get some more experience.
This time it was paid work. Not only that, but paid work with an opportunity for the future.
So we once again found ourselves up to our knees in brash, loading the chipper like pro’s and slip sliding down damp embankments around various places in Bradford.
K quickly settled into the working pattern and set about working and learning. The wonderful things was this time we were working solely with trees. This was exactly what K wanted to do all along, become a tree surgeon. He really focussed his attention and gathered together his motivation to make the most of this opportunity.
Dressed in chainsaw pants and boots, Orange ‘hi viz’ and a growing local knowledge of the best lunch time stops around Bradford. K’s knowledge, experience and skill started to rocket. Pretty soon he was ‘drop’ starting chainsaws, spotting ‘Ash die back’ disease on trees and helping to traffic control on roadside jobs.
I continued to work with K and his new workmates for a while longer (and ow! did my body feel it!) Eventually reducing my input week by week.
Working through any challenges we came across in the moment together. Continually working towards building the skills and habits that you need to be successful at work.
As K became more and more confident, skilled and comfortable I began to stand back more and more. Eventually to the point I was doing almost nothing.
K was there, actively engaging, problem solving, communicating and learning. His work mates coaching and supporting him. Stretching him, pushing him and including him.
Then came the offer… “K you’re doing really well, would you like to come and work full-time with us?”