Helping the lives of people with autism

On the day allocated to raising awareness of autism issues, the woman behind the Rainbow Club in Cork city tells RITA WRAY how much is being done on that front — and what more needs to be done going forward
Helping the lives of people with autism

Karen O’Mahony of The Rainbow Club for Children with Autism at Mahon Community Centre

AUTISM awareness month has begun and many initiatives and places are celebrating Autism Awareness Day today, April 2.

The Rainbow Club, based at the Mahon Community Centre, was founded by Karen O’Mahony and her husband in 2015.

It helps children and young adults from the autism community, providing access to therapies, workshops and social groups, but also employs and trains young adults to support them with skills for their future workplace.

For Karen, as a mum of children on the autism spectrum, there will always have to be a day or month when awareness should be raised about the difficulties autism brings.

“This day is not just about the difficulties, but the ability as much as the disability.”

“It gives us a platform to voice what we do need people to know about our children, and about our organisations. But for all the years that we do celebrate any type of awareness around autism, it only takes us so far.”

“It’s helping to make slight changes in policy and decision-making but there has to be more about it,” Karen explained.

One of the challenges for people with autism can be a lack of access to the labour market — 75-85% of autistic adults are under-employed or unemployed.

“Businesses need to be aware that it is OK to employ our young adults. That they have so much that they can give. They have so many talents in so many areas,” Karen says.

While there is no skill shortage in the autism community, one of the biggest barriers for entry is making it through the interview process. As a high pressure social situation, this can pose many challenges.

“Not everybody is good at doing an interview, but people that are neurotypical get very overwhelmed in these situations as well,” Karen explains.

“This needs to be taken into account by employers. If companies were a lot more open about autism, then people would be a lot more open about putting on their CV ‘I have autism’.”

Karen believes that providing the right guidance and mentorship will help especially young adults find the right work environments to thrive.

The Rainbow Club currently has four people from the autism community working there: three volunteers, and one staff member in the Rainbow Club Community Cafe.

This cafe was opened in 2019 to promote inclusion and awareness in the community. However, due to the Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions, it is not open to the public at the moment.

Karen says: “The cafe normally allows our families to be able to mix with the community and educate them about our children and young adults.”

“It helps us keep a flow of income for the charity coming in. But it is also a training cafe.”

“For the kids here at the Rainbow Club, they grow into the mentorship programmes that we have. The mentorship programme we are really proud of. Children and teens become young adults, and then they often become volunteers or employed at our club.”

The Rainbow Club, and its staff and volunteers, provides mentorship but also access to practical skills.

The club has paired up with partner organisations to provide HACCP health and safety training, to teach how to use a till, and how to interact with customers.

Additionally, cookery and baking demonstrations are also part of the training made available for the young adults from the autism community.

“We are giving them the opportunity to learn some skills and see if they like it. And if they don’t, we navigate them towards a different area in the club they might like.”

However, the road to gainful employment is not just about skills.

Karen thinks that there has to be more of an injection into community groups that are doing so much work on the ground.

More opportunities for work placement, links with colleges and companies, and incentives for companies to provide mentorship to adults with autism are needed.

Karen says: “Doors should be opened. Autism should not stop employers to look at the positives of what our young adults can bring to the table.

“If there were incentives for companies to create jobs, and a clear path to do this, companies would be less afraid to take on young adults with autism.”

To this day, it is largely the responsibility of the individual on the spectrum to work on fitting into workplaces. Many people from the autism community are already part of the workforce, unbeknownst to their employer, but could benefit from a more autism-friendly environment.

We owe more than awareness to the autism community, but opportunities for meaningful and sustained participation in society.

The Rainbow Club is currently helping 500 children, has 13 employees, 62 volunteers, provides mentorship and training programmes, counselling, wellness, sports, a community cafe, and a vast parent support network.

Karen says: “Community groups and charities have to be recognised for the gap that they fill, and we very clearly fill a massive gap in so many ways. It’s time we were recognised for that with government funding,”.

For more information about The Rainbow Club see http://rainbowclub.ie or contact info@rainbowclub.ie

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