A record number of businesses are signing up for training so that staff have a better understanding of autism and other neurodiverse conditions. PETER BARRON assesses the progress being made in this vital area

WHEN it comes to setting a gold standard, a pioneering North-East charity is clearly leading from the front.

More businesses than ever before are benefiting from expert training provided by the North East Autism Society (NEAS), which has adopted the theme of “Going For Gold” for 2019.

This year has been about changing the narrative around autism and neurodiversity so that the focus is not just on “autism awareness” but “autism acceptance”, with a record number of companies engaging with the charity to train staff.

Part of that change of culture has seen the society’s traditional corporate colour of blue being replaced with gold because of its associations with positivity, success and achievement.

It is, therefore, a source of great satisfaction to staff that the charity has just had confirmation that it has retained the Investors in People gold standard.

“The Society had the gold standard previously but the criteria was much more rigorous for the latest assessment, so it is something to be really proud of,” says Maureen Henderson, Head of Human Resources for NEAS.

Further evidence that the charity is making positive strides is that it has also become one of only four organisations in the North-East to achieve “lead employer” status under the Government’s Disability Confident scheme, aimed at changing attitudes and behaviour towards disabled people.

“If we are going to encourage other partners to embrace disability, we have to practise what we preach,” says Maureen. “We are not perfect because it’s an ongoing process of continuous improvement but becoming a lead employer in the Disability Confident scheme shows we are setting the right example.”

That example is being followed by all kinds of North-East businesses, public bodies and voluntary organisations which have signed up for specialist training provided through the society’s Autism and Neurodiversity Academy (ANDA).

For example, a partnership between NEAS and two of the region’s flagship shopping centres – the intu Metrocentre and intu Eldon Square – led to sensory backpacks being made available in April.

Designed by parents supported by NEAS, items in the backpacks include ear-defenders, egg-timers, sunglasses, a variety of visual symbols, fidget toys and autism guides.

Mum Clare Timothy, whose children Dylan and Scarlett tested the backpacks, said: “We love coming to the Metrocentre but it can be difficult during busy times. Now that we can hire the sensory bags this will give us the opportunity to enjoy more family days out at the centre.”

Clare Cannon, community manager at the Metrocentre and Eldon Square, said: “We understand that visiting a shopping centre can be an overwhelming experience. Therefore, we hope that the sensory backpacks will help reduce anxiety to allow families to have an enjoyable experience at our centres.”

Kerrie Highcock, family development manager at NEAS, added: “We see this as an ongoing piece of work which will evolve, and we are really keen to work alongside families to gain feedback and add to the backpack wherever appropriate.”

Another key development has taken place at Newcastle Airport, which has become the first airport in the North to open a sensory area for passengers with hidden conditions, such as autism, dementia, and mental health issues.

The calming area has been designed to support relaxation and de-escalation for passengers who may need to escape when the busy airport surroundings become overwhelming.

Richard Knight, Chief Operating Officer at Newcastle Airport, said: “I think it is absolutely fantastic that we have been able to provide this new service and I hope it will make a true difference to the passengers who use it.”

Another key objective for the society is to find employment for autistic people and Derek Groves, employment futures service manager for NEAS, recently supported Durham Constabulary with the employment of a young apprentice in an administration role.

Sarah Jones, Human Resources Officer with the police force, said: “Derek met with our apprentice, myself and our Occupational Health Team to conduct an assessment from which he produced a comprehensive report.

“The report massively assisted us as an organisation to not only identify a suitable role for our apprentice but also to identify any training needs that we could undertake. We couldn’t have asked for a better service.”

That same level of support has also helped Vertu Honda to become the first car dealership to become autism and neurodiverse friendly by putting its staff through training at its sites in Newcastle, Sunderland and Morpeth.

Chad Ridley, Vertu Honda’s Newcastle branch manager, said: “The training proved invaluable. It was really well received by the staff and the positive feedback we’ve had from customers with autism has been unbelievable.”

Further evidence of the increasing impact of NEAS across the North-East has been Darlington’s ambitious campaign to become the most autism-friendly town in Britain. As part of the initiative, the borough council booked a day towards the end of June for ANDA experts to provide training to senior managers and front-line staff.

Major voluntary organisations are also benefiting from ANDA’s guidance, including Durham Scouts, which recently arranged a general awareness training event for around 40 leaders.

May James, Assistant County Commissioner for Diversity and Inclusion, said: “The training was really useful for us as a training organisation. We have over 4,000 young people and 2,000 adults – this training helped to make a significant difference in making the conversation around autism more accessible and break down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding towards neurodiversity.

“The feedback from the event was fantastic and we are looking forward to working closely with NEAS to further help educate our volunteers and, in turn, be able to give more young people the best experience within scouting.”

The next stage in ANDA’s development is for the training to be officially endorsed by a new kitemark, verifying a participating organisation’s excellence in autism and neurodiversity acceptance.

It will be a gold seal on the growing reputation of a ground-breaking charity making a difference to thousands of lives across the region.

  • Could your organisation benefit from ANDA training? To find out more, go to www.anda.org.uk or call 0191 410 9974.