Businesses hear how they can become autism friendly

Mary McCann (USEL) with Mayor Councillor Maureen Morrow and Sean Hanna from NOW Group at the launch of Mid & East Antrim Enterprise Week

BUSINESSES across the Mid and East Antrim Borough Council area have heard about effective steps they can take to make their services welcoming and inclusive to customers with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) conditions, at an event held during Enterprise Week 2019.

Speakers at the workshop, which took place at the Ecos Centre in Ballymena, included the Northern Health and Social Care Trust’s Head of Community Wellbeing Hugh Nelson, Mary McCann from Ulster Supported Employment and Learning (USEL), and Sean Hanna from the NOW Group.

NOW Group Ambassador David Dempster also spoke about the support he has received in his job with IT firm Allstate and how he helps others with ASD through networks including Fandom.

Employers from the local area heard how creating awareness among their staff about the condition was key to providing a customer experience which is positive and inclusive.

The Council’s Skills and Entrepreneurship Manager Rhonda Lynn said: “We’re bringing together a collective of support through our partners in NOW and USEL, and in the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, to help our local businesses become more ASD friendly.

“Through our business support programmes we provide mentoring and help businesses look at their customer service, how they sell to people and how their shops and business places are welcoming to all.

“The NOW Group’s JAM Card is very well known throughout Northern Ireland. Our customer facing businesses, like the Ecos Centre Café, are very welcoming for all customers and they have the JAM Card initiative in place, as we do across Council facilities including The Gobbins and our Tourist Information Centres.”

Northern Trust spokesperson Hugh Nelson said: “We believe there are a number of small, minor adjustments that businesses can make that will make their services much more accessible to people with autism.

“We also believe that people with autism are very good employees to have, with attributes including creativity, the ability to focus, reliability and dependability.”

Social enterprise USEL, which launched the Ability at the Drawbridge Café at the Ecos Centre earlier this year in conjunction with Council and Catalyst Inc, was also on hand to provide useful advice to the business people in attendance.

USEL’s ESF Project Manager Mary McCann said: “Autism affects the person on the spectrum as well as their families, so I think it’s really key for businesses and employers to understand that, and to make adjustments in their organisations.

“The main challenges that people with autism and their carers face are acceptance and understanding, and that is the main thing we would like to reinforce today.

“As a parent of a child with autism, I wouldn’t change a hair on his head, but I would change the world he lives in. That world relies on people being aware of the challenges those individuals face, accepting those, and making some adjustments to make the world a better place.”

Sean Hanna from NOW Group said the organisation provides services and support to 1,000 participants, around 600 of whom live with a learning disability and 400 who have a ‘neuro diverse condition’.

“Neuro diversity falls into different categories, so it could be people with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia and Tourette’s”, he explained.

“We help employers make reasonable adjustments, as well as helping with the transition of employees into the workplace. We’re on hand to offer suitable advice, so we like to see ourselves as a bridge between the employer and the employee.”

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