One success story from Employment Futures is 33-year-old Ashley Jones.

For most of his life Ashley felt like he didn’t fit in.

From a background in care to a having a breakdown as an adult, it wasn’t until he received his autism diagnosis that the pieces of his life finally came together.

Now Ashley and partner of 15 years, Kris, are navigating the diagnostic process once more as their youngest son is also on the spectrum – but this time instead of being the one needing support, Ashley is the one with insight to help.

What used to feel like a negative is now a positive. My Asperger’s and my experience is now a portal for my partner to understand our son.

Just a few short years ago this wouldn’t have been the case.

Struggling to make sense of his self-defined ‘laser focus’ and obsessions, and the sense of being overwhelmed around people, Ashley began to breakdown.

My first job was in roofing, and I basically worked on my own. Later, when I went to uni to study management, I changed jobs to work for a bus company and I was surrounded by people. I couldn’t explain why but it really affected me. The unpredictability of the people and their emotions really took a toll on me. I was losing weight and feeling panicky all the time. In the end I was referred to a mental health professional.

At this point in his life, Ashley, from Bishop Middleham, didn’t have a word for the ‘odd’ behaviour he had known his whole life.

Ashley Jones from the Employment Futures team

He explained:

I suppose I’ve always been what you would call quirky. Maybe odd would be a better word. Having quite a traumatic upbringing in foster care and then an adoption that only lasted until my 16th birthday, I think it was kind of assumed I had been affected by those things. I was, but something else underpinned how I was processing things in my life.

In a funny way having the breakdown was the start of my life coming together. The mental health team referred me to an autism specialist and within six months I had a diagnosis.

For the dad-of-three it was a bitter sweet moment.

Like autism, it was a spectrum of things to deal with. I was happy, confused, angry but at peace. I think the hardest part of getting a diagnosis is seeing how it affects those closest to you.

Ashley and partner Kris Shaw, have three sons together. The couple, who live near Sedgefield, have been together since teenagers.

I internalised it and was not aware of the damage around me. It was incredibly sad that I didn’t realise how much it affected Kris over the last 15 years. We’ve grown up together and been on a journey together. I underestimated how much it affected her.

She always knew there was something a bit different. In any relationship… we accept peculiarities and difference as no two humans are perfect and you meet in the middle. I would say the people who loved me met me in the middle. None more so than Kris. She’s an amazing woman.

I could see when we got the news about our youngest son also having autism that she was thinking about whether he would be like me or not.

As part of Kris supporting Ashley, she insisted he get back to structure and routine so he found his way to Employment Futures and a meeting with manager, Derek Groves.

I went along and met Derek, who took me through the ‘do-It profiler’ and I went to workshops. I think during that time Derek saw something in me. That in itself was a huge encouragement which gave me the confidence to apply for jobs. One of which was at NEAS.

Ashley applied – and was successful - for the role of Community Employment Specialist on the Journey 2 Employment programme.

Derek said:

What makes Ashley ideally suited to this role is his ability to draw upon various experiences and circumstances in his own life and provide encouragement and inspiration to others. A client from Ashley’s workshop recently commented that he could tell that Ashley genuinely cared and was committed to improving the confidence of the group. The client also commented that he had been referred to other programmes by Job Centre but not experienced anything like this programme before.

Ashley now helps those on the programme with a peer support, he delivers personalised training and supports Job Centre Work Coaches.

He added:

At 33 years of age I finally found someone [Derek] who I can be comfortable with and treats me as an equal member of the team. For the first time I’m being treated like a person and not a set of symptoms or behaviours, and not as a diagnosis.