Specialist education body National Learning Network supports almost 800 people with autism and Aspergers into employment or further education.

National Learning Network has supported almost 800 people with autism and Aspergers into employment or progress to further education in the last five years.

National Learning Network (NLN) is the education and training division of Rehab Group.  NLN provides inclusive education and training opportunities with specialist student supports to promote student success in personal, vocational, and occupational goals.

To coincide with World Autism Awareness month, NLN training centres nationwide are hosting a National Open Day on Wednesday, April 5th at 11 am focussing on autism support.  In addition, people can visit NLN locations in every county to see the various learning options with pathways to further education, higher education, and jobs.

In recent years, significant progress has been made in increasing awareness and acceptance of autism.  However, Autistic people still face discrimination and barriers to access and participation in all aspects of society, including education and work in Ireland.  NLN has a large autistic community, with almost 40% of the student population identifying as autistic.

Lucianne Bird, Director of the National Learning Network, says: “Autistic advocates such as AsIam, Ireland’s National Autism Charity have worked tirelessly to bring the lived experience of autistic people to wider society.  It is our responsibility, to play a role in Irish society as Autism allies and shows leadership, to move beyond autism awareness to autism acceptance.”

NLN training centres adopt a neurodiversity affirmative approach in working with all students.  “Put simply this means we respect that students vary in how their brains take in, process, and respond to information.  It’s just what makes each of us unique – staff and students.  And the difference between people in how we learn is natural.  There is no one better way to learn or no correct way to be, all neuro-types are equally valued,” explained Ms Bird.

“Autistic individuals have a wide range of abilities and needs, and NLN staff are skilled at providing the specific support required; of course, the type and level of support varies from person to person.  In NLN, we often meet autistic people who have been masking personal traits to fit in with people around them.  This can be exhausting and negatively impact on mental health and wellbeing.  In all our training centres, we welcome and support people to be their true and authentic selves without pressure to conform to traditional social norms,” added Ms Bird.

Autistic students are not just following their own paths.  They are headed to different destinations, and NLN staff work in a student-centred way to help autistic students reach their chosen destinations.  We also work with important stakeholders in the community, such as employers, to promote an understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace.

Edel McSorley, Operations Director of Mr. Price Branded Bargains, said: “Our corporate partnership with NLN has supported our supervisors and hiring managers to have a greater understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace.  In recognising that potential employees may take in, respond and process information differently, we adopted a much more flexible recruitment process.  This year, we accepted a job application that included a work experience placement with a poem rather than a traditional CV.  This student is now an employee.  We will continue to work with autistic students in NLN who want to get a job and follow careers in the retail industry using job accommodations where needed to ensure equity of access to jobs and careers with Mr. Price Branded Bargains.”

Nicholas Foote, 33, from Tramore, Co Waterford, knew he was autistic for a long time before he finally got an official diagnosis.

“I was suspected of being autistic when I was in primary school, and I knew I was different, but there wasn’t much understanding in those days. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I got a private assessment, and it was confirmed that I was autistic. It was just four years ago.

I’ve always known I was different. I had a gift for things like working with my hands, understanding systems very quickly, and computing. It’s an autistic trait to get fixated on those things, but my deficits were things like social interactions. I had lots of difficulties with communication in that I would always agree with people no matter what they said, which obviously caused me a lot of challenges in my life not being able to say no or give my actual opinion. I worked as a railway engineer for many years, but as an undiagnosed autistic person, I often felt burned out as I couldn’t access the support I needed.

Nicholas contacted National Learning Network’s Cara Autism Support Service in Waterford, which proved to be a real turning point in his life.

“It was a huge relief to get my diagnosis and stop feeling this imposter syndrome. Everything I have now is because of NLN. The support I got was amazing. I sought help with my executive functioning; such are self-regulation skills and the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember, and juggle multiple tasks. I signed up for a one-to-one course to help me process day-to-day things, which most people find easy but can be so challenging for an autistic person.

NLN also helped me get a job that suits me and doesn’t leave me burned out. I now work for an insurance company in Waterford, it’s a lovely experience, and I have fully disclosed my autism diagnosis, and I am supported.

What sets NLN apart is the experience of sitting one to one with someone to discuss what is going on in your life and setting smaller goals to achieve a bigger goal in the end. For example, because I am autistic, if had a busy day ahead with lots of things going on, I would often become overwhelmed and feel like I couldn’t face the day. NLN gave me tools like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to overcome and manage this. These tools have proved invaluable to me.

I even spoke in the Seanad recently about something hugely important to me the lack of accessibility in the legal system for people with invisible disabilities like autism or mental health challenges. There is no fair and equal access to the legal system for someone with autism. It’s a huge gap. I don’t think I could have done something like this if I hadn’t found NLN.

Nicholas regularly attends social events at the weekends with NLN and is still very much connected to the service.

“I would say to anyone who is struggling and believes they are autistic to first seek out an official diagnosis and then reach out to get the support you need. Find out what your deficits are and what you excel at and get the support you need to get to where you want to be. For me this was NLN. I am openly autistic in my current job, and it makes life a lot easier.”

If you or a member of your family is autistic and looking for an autism-friendly route to pursue your career goals, drop into your nearest National Learning Network centre on April 5th at 11 am, meet our staff and find out how we support autistic students to gain qualifications, progress to further education, get jobs and pursue careers.

Go to www.nln.ie to find your nearest centre.

If you request more information or an interview, please get in touch with Ciara.heffernan@rehab.ie or call 087 9728513