“I was very nervous but knew I had to push myself to get better at social situations” Merthyr man refuses to let his autism hold him back as he takes home prize at Inspire! Awards

A 21-year-old from Merthyr has won a major award for the way he has overcome barriers and dedicated himself to furthering his education alongside employment.

James Atkinson has autism spectrum disorder. Growing up, he struggled with confidence and found social situations challenging, eventually leaving school without GCSEs in maths and English. But James refused to let his lack of confidence and qualifications hold him back.

After leaving school he started a college course in engineering, but a year and a half after starting the course he knew it wasn’t the right fit for him. Determined to find work, James went through People Plus, a leading employment support and training services company. He secured a work placement with Elite Paper Solutions, eventually landing the position as a delivery drivers’ mate.

The position was life-changing for James. Filled with confidence, he was inspired to go back to college to study ICT and work towards a degree in computer science at university.

Knowing he would need GCSE maths and English to apply to university, James has been working towards a level 2 qualification in essential communication skills and level 2 essential application of number skills alongside his Level 2 ICT course.

James was awarded the ‘Health & Wellbeing’ Inspire! Award in recognition of his commitment and unwavering motivation to improving his employment prospects against the odds.

James was one of 12 winners to be recognised at the 2021 Inspire! Awards. Co-ordinated by the Learning and Work Institute with support from the Welsh Government and the European Social Fund, the Inspire! Awards recognised those who have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning, building confidence and developing vibrant and successful communities.

The Inspire! Awards are were part of Adult Learners’ Week, which took place this year from 20-26 September offering taster sessions and live online sessions to inspire people to keep learning throughout their lives.

For James, the award win represents the power of hard work and his courage to do things outside of his comfort zone.

James said: “I’ve always loved learning; I find it so satisfying. The knowledge that I’m grasping new things feels very powerful and gives me lots of pride.

“Because of my autism, I struggle with social situations. This made school and college very challenging. It wasn’t the best learning space for me.

“I ended up leaving my first college course sooner than planned, but I wanted to find a job. People Plus helped me to find a placement where I could learn and work at the same time. I went through a few different ones but found myself struggling due to my mental health so they didn’t work out for me at first.

“After a year of training, they helped me find a placement with Elite Paper Solutions. They help anybody struggling with mental or physical health issues get back into work by offering a voluntary work service. It was a great fit for me. I was there a year before they gave me the position of a driver’s mate.

“Speaking with customers every day brought me out my shell and helped with my social anxiety. It’s given me loads of self-belief. Working with Elite even gave me enough confidence to get a job working at Hardy’s in Merthyr.

“I was looking for some extra money and my mum suggested a bar job. It was really outside my comfort zone, and I was nervous about it at first, but I knew I had to push myself to get better at social situations. Now I love the work and getting to speak with people.

“After starting my placement with Elite, I realised that now was the right time to go to back to college and give education another go.”

In September 2020, alongside his work with Elite Paper Solutions and his bar job, James enrolled on an ICT course at Merthyr College.

James continued: “When I first started college, I noticed I was quite comfortable in my level 1 and able to answer loads of questions. I had a massive boost of self-belief when they moved me up to level 2 after only four weeks of being there.

“Balancing my ICT course with essential skills training and two part-time jobs can be very tiring, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m working towards something that’s going to make my life so much better and make me so much happier.

“My essential skills training has been so useful. My writing has improved massively, which helps me to be much more articulate with my exams and coursework for my ICT course.”

James is now looking forward to returning to college after the summer break where he will be completing his essential skills training and working towards a First Diploma in Level 2 IT and Creative technology.

Reflecting on the importance of adult learning, James said: “It’s really satisfying to know how many doors this might open for me. With each piece of knowledge I gain, I’m helping my career. I have some regrets about my time at school, so I’m finding it that much more special to have this opportunity to try again.”

“To help anyone thinking of going back into education I would say “just do it!”. I hope my story gives you an example of what can be done even in challenging times.”

Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language, said: “Congratulations to all the winners and nominees in this year’s Inspire! Awards. There’s some really powerful stories behind this year’s participants, with some great examples of people overcoming personal challenges in their commitment to learning, and it’s important to celebrate the achievements of everyone who took part. Well done everyone!”

David Hagendyk, Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute said: “What better way to realise the value of adult learning than to hear the uplifting stories of our Inspire! Award winners. Each and every one of our winners demonstrates the benefits lifelong learning can bring – from improving mental wellbeing, to gaining the skills to land a new job.”

“We hope their incredible stories will inspire people across Wales to take that first step back into education. Whatever your motivation for gaining new skills, there’s never been a better time to change your story.”

For personalised advice on your own learning options and support available, get in touch with Working Wales on 0800 028 4844 or search www.workingwales.gov.wales.

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