Neurodivergent young people and the labour market: The importance of supported employment
In the pursuit of an inclusive society, it is imperative to address the challenges faced by neurodivergent young people in accessing and maintaining meaningful employment. Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with a learning disability and/or autism, often encounter barriers in the labour market due to difficulties in securing and sustaining jobs without appropriate support. One effective approach that has shown promising results is the supported employment model. This personalised and evidence-based approach aims to support neurodivergent individuals in securing real employment opportunities and promoting social and economic inclusion.
Despite the success of supported employment, it is not widely accessible to all who may benefit from it. To shed light on this issue and explore effective strategies, this paper examines findings from the Engage to Change project. Over the first five years, that included the Covid pandemic, this project provided support to 916 neurodivergent young people, out of which 196 were successfully long term employed. The paper focuses on 78% of referrals, (719), for whom comprehensive data regarding job coach input was used. Outcomes for the project supported internship programmes are not included. The paper aims to identify the most effective pathways to employment, analysing unpaid placements, paid placements, paid jobs, and combinations of these, along with the role of job coaching hours.
Despite the success of supported employment, it is not widely accessible to all who may benefit from it. To shed light on this issue and explore effective strategies, this paper examines findings from the Engage to Change project. Over the first five years, which included the Covid pandemic, this project provided support to 916 neurodivergent young people, out of which 113 were successfully employed and (719 out of 916) reported job coaching hours (78%). The paper aims to identify the most effective pathways to employment, analysing unpaid placements, paid placements, paid jobs, and combinations of these, along with the role of job coaching hours.
The power of supported employment:
Supported employment, developed in the United States in the 1980s, emerged as a response to the needs of people with intellectual disabilities seeking employment in regular work settings. It has proven to be a successful system, leading to increased employment rates, higher wages, improved social interactions, and even enhanced health outcomes. Central to supported employment is its needs-led and individualised nature, recognising each individual’s unique interests, preferences, skills, and experiences.
Challenges faced by neurodivergent young people:
The journey to securing meaningful employment can be particularly challenging for neurodivergent young people. Statistics show that only 5.1% of individuals with intellectual disabilities and 22% of those with autism, aged 16-64 in the UK, are employed (Department for Work and Pensions, 2021). These figures are significantly lower than the general employment rate for disabled individuals (52.7% post-Covid-19 pandemic) and the overall population (75.6%) (Office for National Statistics, 2022). The barriers to employment are multifaceted, involving both individual factors like cognitive ability, qualifications, and social skills, as well as environmental factors like lack of understanding and support for neurodivergent individuals’ needs and talents.
Key elements of supported employment:
The success of the supported employment approach relies on several key stages. Vocational profiling is the foundation, involving a comprehensive understanding of an individual’s needs, abilities, experiences, and preferences. This leads to effective job finding and matching, ensuring the right fit for the individual based on their profile. Job analysis and placement follow, where job tasks are analysed, and the employer’s expectations are understood to provide tailored training.
Contextualised learning through job training allows individuals to learn in the workplace, supported by job coaches, which promotes independence and confidence in their roles. Follow-up ensures continued support as needed. Job coaches play a crucial role in supporting both the individual and the employer, aiding in the recruitment process and facilitating reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act (2010) to ensure accessibility for neurodivergent individuals.
Understanding the pathways to employment:
The Engage to Change project aimed to address the challenges faced by neurodivergent young people aged 16-25 who were not in employment, education, or training (NEET) or at risk of becoming NEET. The project provided different pathways to employment, including short-term unpaid placements, longer paid placements, direct paid employment, or a combination of these options.
Paid placements emerged as a successful pathway to real employment for neurodivergent young people. These placements, lasting up to six months, involved wage incentives subsidised by the Engage to Change project, encouraging employers to continue employing the individual after the placement. This approach proved effective, highlighting the importance of financial incentives to employers in the supported employment framework.
Flexibility and individualised support:
The Engage to Change project emphasises the importance of flexibility in organising and funding supported employment. As the population of neurodivergent individuals is diverse in terms of abilities and challenges, a one-size-fits-all approach may not be suitable. Some individuals with mild intellectual disabilities and strong communication skills may require less job coach intervention, while others with more significant challenges may benefit from more intensive support.
Job coaches need to be adaptive and open-minded, recognising the specific needs and requirements of each individual. Additionally, employers and co-workers should receive appropriate training and support to enable them to provide a conducive work environment for neurodivergent employees.
Supported employment has emerged as a powerful tool in supporting neurodivergent young people into meaningful employment. However, its widespread availability remains limited, and the Engage to Change project sheds light on the importance of offering paid placements and financial incentives to employers to maximise employment outcomes for individuals with intellectual disabilities and/or autism. By adopting a flexible and individualised approach, supported employment can become a catalyst for creating a more neurodiverse and inclusive workforce, contributing to a society that embraces diversity and empowers all individuals to reach their full potential in the labour market.
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