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Supporting learning disabled and autistic young people into employment

learning disabled boy working in restaurant

Cardiff University's research has led to better support for young people with learning disabilities and autism to help them find paid work across Wales.

Young people with learning disabilities or those who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) experience significantly higher levels of unemployment than their peers. In fact, according to The National Autistic Society, just 22% of autistic adults are in full time employment and the national learning disability charity MENCAP reports that only 6 in 100 people with severe learning disabilities are in work compared to 79% of the general population.

To address this inequality, our researchers explored an approach called a 'supported employment' model and assessed whether it could help more learning disabled and autistic young people secure paid work in Wales.

The team's findings influenced Welsh Government policy and their decision to invest £10m to launch a project called 'Engage to Change'. Hundreds of young people have benefited from this project which is now supporting them to gain work experience and find employment.

What is 'supported employment'?

'Supported employment' is a well-established model that assists people with identified needs - such as physical or learning disabilities - to find paid work. This model involves using specialist job coaches to build up a profile of an individual to consider their specific skills, experience and interests before matching them with a suitable employer. Supported employment involves close collaboration with employers to maximise the chance of a successful match.

Cardiff University research, led by Dr Stephen Beyer, investigated whether there was a need for this kind of model in Wales to help young learning disabled people find work.  They demonstrated that a supported employment model would be a valuable approach and advocated to make job coaching available for young people with learning disabilities and ASD in Wales.

Young learning disabled boy at the computer

Influencing Welsh Government policy and funding decisions

The Cardiff University research team clearly demonstrated the need for a supported employment programme in Wales and the potential benefits for young people with learning disabilities.  As a result, Welsh Government made a policy decision to move away from the use of generic employment support models - including traditional job seeking services offered through Jobcentre Plus - to the implementation of a supported employment approach.

Welsh Government also used a £10M fund to establish a supported employment project called Engage to Change which was designed using our findings.

Young people standing in front of a poster

How 'Engage to Change' is changing lives

'Engage to Changeis an evidence-based project designed to help young people with learning disabilities and autism find work in Wales.  It is delivered through a consortium of charities and supported employment agencies and it matches employers with potential employees through a placement programme. This project removes formal employment processes, such as interviews, tests and presentations, which can be a major barrier to employment for people with learning disabilities and autism. 'Engage to Change' advocates for training before employment, rather than the traditional approach of an employee being hired before being given any training to do the job.  This is a key element of this model which makes it more effective for young learning disabled or ASD individuals as they have the opportunity to apply their training to real-life work situations whilst learning how to fulfil their role.

engage to change logo 3

In total, by the end of 2021, 610 learning disabled or autistic young people had joined the 'Engage to Change' project to receive support in finding work. Of these, 490 had benefited from unpaid work experience and 388 had paid work placements.

'One thing is that I am employed, so if people ask I can say "yes!". I am more confident in myself, starting a new life and I am more independent in some things. I have become more independent in the job, doing stuff and I don't just mean in work but socially.'
Engage to Change participant

Key facts

  • Cardiff University researchers investigated how a supported employment model could help young learning disabled and ASD people into employment.
  • This research influenced Welsh Government policy and led to a £10M investment from Welsh Government and National Lottery to fund the supported employment project called 'Engage to Change'.
  • The 'Engage to Change' project has had an 53% employment rate from paid placements, with 86% staying in their jobs in line with the Department of Work and Pensions metric of employment success.