Melissa Hodgson and Holly Redden work together as Learning Support Assistants at the North East Autism Society’s Thornbeck College, and they agree that without the support of the team at the college, they could probably not do the job.

Melissa and Holly are very clear on how important teamwork is when looking after vulnerable people, and are both pleased to be part of a team that is helping autistic students toward more independent living.

Both Melissa and Holly started working at the college towards the end of September 2020, having come in to the roles from very different backgrounds, although they have both had experience of autism.

Melissa mainly worked in retail management with large, national chain stores, and also has a degree in Business Studies. She had an interest in going down the teaching route, and decided to make a career change.

“I have a cousin with autism who I would look after from a young age, and this gave me a particular interest in focusing on special needs,” she explains. “I also worked for a time at Darlington College with students with learning difficulties, which I really enjoyed.

I’d heard about NEAS when my cousin applied to come to Thornbeck College, and I felt that their vision fitted with my own ideals – the way they actively promote independence for their students, through really supporting them in education, and teaching life skills.

Holly worked in a variety of jobs that all seemed to have an element of care-giving about them.

“While I was at university, I worked in a bar on a static caravan park, and would run the kids’ club during the holiday,” she says. “Then I went on to work at an Activity Centre that had a sensory room, and we did Rebound Therapy and things like that.

“Before I came to NEAS, I was working at an Early Years swimming centre where I also got involved in running the messy play sessions. It seems that I was involved in the more caring roles in whatever job it was.”

Holly also thought about being a teacher, and through her involvement with her best friend’s two autistic children, that desire developed into an interest in Special Educational Needs.

She sees working with NEAS as the perfect opportunity to get an insight into the sort of teaching she is considering.

Melissa and Holly work in the college with three or four learners and a Tutor. They both work one-to-one with a student, supporting them to access learning and life skills, with the aim of furthering their education and promoting independence.

The students either come to the college for five or three full days every week, so Melissa and Holly will work with a different student each day.

It’s not only the students who are learning, Melissa and Holly are learning all the time as well. During their initial three months, they are taking qualifications which include First Aid; Understanding Autism Level 2; and Safeguarding, with further opportunities in the future to study.

“NEAS offers further opportunities to in-house courses to progress your career,” says Melissa. “They really look after you and help you to gain qualifications that they think might be useful to you.”

Holly is already considering studying to become a tutor with NEAS, in a job that she acknowledges as being very rewarding.

It’s wonderful to see the students developing their skills and becoming more independent, and knowing that you’re making a difference to that person’s life

Melissa agrees, and is also thinking about following a teaching course in the future.

“The best part is getting to work with the students,” says Melissa. “Each individual is so amazing and every day I learn something new. I feel privileged to be part of each person’s life.”

Everyone at the college is part of the same team – and this also encompasses the parents. There is regular telephone and email contact and updates with parents about their child’s progress. If anything should happen at home, or at college the information is shared so that everyone is kept in the loop.

About working in the team, Holly says: “The team is brilliant. I genuinely couldn’t do the job without the support of the other staff members.

Just having them there to let you know if you’ve done something well, means a lot. Especially if you’ve got a vulnerable person in your hands, knowing you’ve got that support to help you through – or if you’ve had a bad day, there’s someone to talk to you about it.

Melissa is quick to agree: “It can be difficult, coming into a different industry, like myself. Everybody is really supportive and they share best tactics. We had a lot of feedback and support during our induction, and it’s what makes the job, really.

“If we weren’t working as a team, we couldn’t deliver the excellent service that we do.”

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