Autism Warrior: Claire Cookson
Chief Executive Officer of DFN Project SEARCH, a total immersion transition-to-work program for students with learning disabilities and autism spectrum conditions looking to achieve competitive employment.
In April 2020, Claire Cookson was appointed the new CEO of DFN Project SEARCH, a supported internship program designed to enable the inclusion and empowerment of young adults with autism and learning disabilities in the workforce.
DFN Project SEARCH promotes the belief every young person has an equal right to aspire to the very best future work—something often denied to those with disabilities. The goal for each participant is competitive, integrated employment.
The program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to help participants make successful transitions to productive adult life. It is evidence-based, works at scale, and includes total workplace immersion, facilitating a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on skills training.
The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of skills training and career exploration, innovative adaptations, long-term job coaching, and continuous feedback from instructors, job coaches, and employers.
Today, DFN Project SEARCH runs over 65 programs throughout the UK and Europe and has supported more than 1,400 young adults in finding full-time paid work. On average, over 60 percent of participants gain permanent paid jobs on contracts of over 16 hours a week. This can be life-changing, especially considering only six percent of people with learning disabilities and autism hold paid positions nationally.
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Claire started her career in special education in 2011, where she quickly noticed the limited employment opportunities and low aspirational expectations society held for people with autism and learning disabilities. Wishing to give her students the chance to flourish as the valuable employees they could become, she partnered with National Grid in Warwick to co-found Employ Ability—Let’s Work Together the following year.
This supported internship model enables participants to achieve sustainable employment by giving them workplace skills and experience. Interns simultaneously complete personalized study programs for additional learning, training, and working towards relevant qualifications.
Claire’s students thrived as a result of studying and training with National Grid, and she considers it one of her biggest accomplishments. This untapped talent pool is steadily working to transform and evolve employment culture within National Grid and beyond.
Claire draws much inspiration from working alongside neurodivergent individuals. During her previous position as Associate Head of a broad-spectrum special school, she witnessed many youths overcome significant challenges while navigating a world not quite designed to meet their needs. She admires their perseverance and considers it a motivating force behind her desire to look at things in a fresh way, challenge preconceptions, and set high aspirations for herself and others.
Claire has big goals for DFN Project SEARCH; she and her team aim to support 20,000 qualifying students in acquiring competitive, integrated employment over the next decade. She wants to encourage authorities, schools, and colleges to offer high-quality supported internships in every local area so people with autism and learning disabilities can pursue fulfilling adult lives.
She also hopes to work with other transition-to-work providers to ensure consistently high standards and facilitate learning from each other’s best practices. Overall, Claire’s goal is to help set the bar high and give this talented minority hope and the chance to fulfill their potential.
Advice for families affected by autism:
Do not presume an autism diagnosis automatically excludes the viability of paid work; speak to schools, colleges, and local authorities about possible employment pathways for learners with autism as early as possible. For those already at a working age, contact JobCentre Plus about supported employment options in your local area.
There are many excellent job coaches who can provide in-work job support for those who meet the criteria. They can supply the systematic instruction some need to thrive at work, and their services can be financed by the Department for Work and Pensions Access to Work fund.
Claire knows people with autism spectrum conditions can add incredible value to the workplace and often meet real business needs, so “Don’t lose sight of this and always have high aspirations.”
This article was featured in Issue 106 –Maintaining a Healthy Balance With ASD