Issue 224, April 2015
For all young people, the transition from secondary school to work or further education can be difficult to navigate. For young people with autism, this transition can prove insurmountable.
Adults with high functioning autism are more likely than the general population to experience unemployment, underemployment and ‘malemployment’ (being employed in unsuitable jobs), all of which can lead to further difficulties such as financial insecurity and mental illness.*
In 2014 Autism Queensland launched Studio G, a screen-based media program that supports young people with high functioning autism during this difficult post-school transition period. The program builds on participants’ interests and strengths to help them develop social, job and life skills.
‘We’re helping young people with autism build their resilience, self-esteem, confidence and their skills to take that next step in their lives,’ said Dr Michael Whelan, Manager of Post-School Services with Autism Queensland.
Following the extreme social stresses of high school, a lot of young people on the autism spectrum retreat to their bedrooms and computers. Online gaming communities and digital media hubs often provide a more accessible forum for them to establish and maintain social connections.
Studio G taps into those interests, offering 10-week group workshops in areas such as gaming and game development, animation, short film, photography, graphic design, music and creative writing. The workshops are led by ‘mentors’, creative industries graduates who have been trained by Autism Queensland to deliver responsive and intuitive support to young people on the autism spectrum.
With one mentor for each four participants, Studio G enables these young people to build relationships of trust with digital arts professionals while working on a creative project.
The structure of the workshops allows participants to grow at their own pace and, with the assistance of their mentors, to develop and complete their own projects in accordance with goals they themselves have set.
Studio G is based at ‘The Edge’, the State Library of Queensland’s arts, technology, science and enterprise centre in Brisbane. As part of the program, participants also visit creative workplaces such as design studios, post-production film facilities, university campuses, and TAFE campuses to get a sense of the kinds of work and training on offer in the creative industries.
‘We’re always doing short trips here and there... so that our participants get to see the workplace and get to see how they might be able to fit within that, because young people on the spectrum can find it quite difficult to imagine themselves in different settings,’ Dr Whelan said.
Autism Queensland is also looking at the other half of the‘employment equation’: engaging employers and the human resources sector to develop recruitment processes that accommodate people on the autism spectrum.
‘We want to engage with the broader community – with the business and corporate sector – and say, “Hey, you may not know this, but someone with autism might be the best employee you’ve ever had”, ’ Dr Whelan said.
‘Most recruitment processes will exclude someone with autism... they could be the ideal employee but their inability to make eye contact with someone they’ve just met precludes them from proceeding in that recruitment process.’
Studio G began as a six-month pilot program in July 2014 but grew quickly and, thanks to corporate support, is now a core project of Autism Queensland. The program has received an Autism CRC Innovation grant, enabling them to employ a research assistant to conduct an evaluation of all aspects of the program so it can be refined before it’s rolled out in other locations. Autism Queensland has plans to offer the program in north Queensland in the second half of 2015.
Dr Whelan says that feedback from participants and parents has been ‘terrific’ thus far, with one couple calling it ‘the educational program [they] have been waiting for’ for their son, who ‘always loathed his mainstream educational settings’.
‘We have pretty much 100% attendance. People get there an hour, and hour and a half early each session,’ Dr Whelan said.
‘They want to hang around because they’ve found a place, they’ve found a tribe, they’ve found a peer group that they can thrive in and one that they don’t feel vulnerable and anxious in. And that’s a huge thing.’
* Baldwin, S., Costley, D. & Warren, A. 2014, ‘Employment activities and experiences of adults with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Disorder’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, v.44, n.10, pp.2440-49.