Woman sitting on a mossy hill, blue quote

This time we meet Sarah, a Support Worker at Lonlas, our horticulture and landscaping project in Neath, Wales. At Lonlas Village Workshops, our autistic trainees learn about machine maintenance and other aspects of gardening. The structured environment helps to make learning easier and trainees receive hands-on work experience in the community.

Tell us a little bit about Lonlas, what kind of work do you do there?

At Lonlas we give the people we support the opportunity to experience all aspects of gardening, from machine maintenance to carpentry and they receive hands-on work experience in the community with local people and organisations.

The work we do varies because it’s seasonal. If the weather is good we’ll be outdoors, maybe cutting grass or doing something more skills based - we levelled a car park recently! We also spend a lot of time in the workshop, fixing machines, or indoors doing repainting jobs or working on construction projects.

We were recently working outdoors, removing moss from a lawn. The pile of moss we removed (see picture above) was so huge I could almost stand in it neck high!

What’s it like working at Lonlas?

At Lonlas, staff and the people we support all work together, sharing skills and helping to run the service as a team. We do our best to make sure that we work to everyone’s individual ability. This means some of the people we support actually teach me the skills I need, such as carpentry.

At Lonlas, staff and the people we support all work together, sharing skills and helping to run the service as a team.

The building we’re in is a unit in a large warehouse. We share it with lots of other businesses which is great because we’re in among the community. We’ve been here for 20 years and we’ve evolved to make it a home. This all takes time and needs to be nurtured to work.

How does it differ from a ‘typical’ workplace?

I’ve worked in many different places in the public sector and private sector. It’s the attitude at Lonlas that makes it different. It’s not just about being nice to people but making the environment work for them.

It’s about tailoring to individual needs – that includes staff! We all have different needs and priorities and when we work together to meet these, our work becomes shaped by all the team’s inspirations and abilities. We have a very visual structure with a lot of picture formats and colour coding. Everything is very precise. But not everything is applied to everyone. For instance, some people are better learning with their hands so we’ve created an environment for them and not everyone works well online so we accommodate them too.

It’s not just about being nice to people but making the environment work for them.

There’s a lot of work involved. We have to write everything down and if any user does something, anything, out of the ordinary, it is noted down. We call it “Unique Moments”. It’s not a token gesture as we meet to figure out how it can be used to help them grow and have fun. Families we work with appreciate that we understand the people we support and build systems that work for them.

I’ve always believed that people with complex needs, who receive high levels of support, can do employed jobs. It’s all well and good believing in it but we have to see it work as well. At Lonlas, it’s beautiful to see people who believe this, and those who are making it happen – we’re realising the dream!

How do you work with the people you support?

We try to have a person-centred approach that works for everybody. It means we learn from them as much as they learn from us. We have a person who uses sign language and so we have a “Sign of the Week” which gets everyone involved in learning a new language. It’s about involving them and adapting with them.

We have someone who is very good at guessing what an image implies, so we work with them to design our signs and check that they mean what they are intended to mean. It’s led to everything being very clear so everyone knows exactly what they need to do and where they need to be. We’re very lucky that people get to learn about machine maintenance and carpentry which means that we can make bespoke tools to make our lives easier.

But it’s not just about putting systems in place, it’s maintaining them too. It’s very easy to have a system but much harder to have something that keeps everyone on board and happy. We’ve had people come in from other companies and say they wish their office was like ours. It’s about breaking down barriers, whatever they may be, to help provide equal opportunities.

As an autistic person, what support has helped you in your role?

My manager is amazing, they’ve taken the time to know me and they have autism knowledge. It also helps to be working in an open and honest environment, people tell me what they really think and I value that.

Lonlas is a very autism-friendly workplace and I feel privileged to work here, it’s made coming to work feel normal for me.

Lonlas is a very autism-friendly workplace and I feel privileged to work here, it’s made coming to work feel normal for me.

Finally, if you could change just one thing about the world to make it more autism-friendly, what would it be?

To think about inclusion in a way that’s meaningful. This can often be as simple as giving people the information they need to make their own decision about whether something is right for them.

For example, imagine if shops displayed information on their window or on a website about the kind of sensory experience you might have in store, about whether the shop is dark or light, if there are strong smells, or if staff are likely to approach you. You’d be able to decide in advance whether this was a comfortable environment for you. Every person is different when it comes to sensory needs, but knowing beforehand helps.

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