As more companies in the North-East are encouraged to employ people with autism, Peter Barron visits Beamish Museum to hear the inspirational story of one autistic employee.

RESPLENDENT in her straw boater, with its glossy band of blue and green duck feathers, Ailsa Riddel is a picture of happiness at work.

As well as the jaunty hat, Ailsa’s uniform happens to be a long, dowdy Edwardian frock, because it is her job to fit in with the authentic sense of history that has made Beamish Museum a world-famous tourist attraction.

For the past year, she has been a popular member of the “Old Town and Pit Life” team, which can see her serving customers in the old Co-op, answering questions from a steady stream of visitors, polishing the brass railings, and generally being a Beamish ambassador.

Ailsa at Beamish

She seems made for the job – friendly, chatty, infectiously enthusiastic, and full of smiles – and yet finding work has been a challenge. That’s because she’s had to overcome the label that society pins on people with autism.

It is a label that the North East Autism Society is fighting hard to remove with a campaign to persuade more businesses that autistic people can make excellent employees.

Ailsa, now 31, grew up in Peterborough, the oldest of four children, and has “high-functioning autism”. She was able to go through mainstream education, completing her GCSEs before embarking on a college course in IT and business. And yet life wasn’t easy – she needed more support and it wasn’t to be found in Peterborough.

Her family’s research pointed to the North-East having a first-class reputation for autism support and so, in 2004, she moved to Sunderland.

The support she needed was supplied by the North East Autism Society and Ailsa started volunteering at Beamish, initially working in the resource centre’s library and assisting with school visits.

She was then given experience of rural life on the Beamish farm, and her confidence grew to the point at which, a year ago, she was asked if she’d like to become a paid member of staff, working in the 1900s town and pit village.

Her face lights up again at the memory of the job offer:

I couldn’t believe it, I was so proud.

She does two six-hour shifts a week and makes her way independently from the Sunderland care home where she lives to the museum in north Durham. She catches a bus at 7.36am and Ailsa chuckles as she describes the journey on public transport: “The bus goes everywhere – Washington, Chester-le-Street and lots of little villages – before I get to work, and it’s the same going back. It takes forever,” she says.

But it’s clearly all worth it for Ailsa to be a valued part of the team at Beamish: “I love working here and the people I work with are so nice,” she says. “Dealing with the public has made me so much more confident and every day is interesting.”

When she was younger, she applied to work at a Morrisons supermarket and got down to the final six but didn’t get the job. “I think that put me off a bit but I’m really lucky to have the job I’ve got now,” she says.

Museum director Richard Evans readily acknowledges that Beamish is also lucky to have Ailsa:

She has become a real asset. We could see how her self-esteem and confidence developed while she was volunteering, and she has the qualities we need. She has a lovely personality, a flexible attitude, she fits in well as part of a team, and she interacts so well with the visitors. It made sense to make her part of the staff.

Ailsa is one of a number of Beamish employees who are on the autism spectrum, and the museum is one of more than 268 businesses across Britain to have signed up to the Autism Charter, which provides free staff training in how to make reasonable adjustments for employees with autism.

These are exciting times for Ailsa. As well as establishing herself in her job, she has high hopes of being able to move into her own flat from next month, and she has no doubt that being in employment has helped her towards that new level of independence.

“It’s just helped me to cope better. I’ve learned to be more organised and I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” she says.

A big part of that happiness is her boyfriend James, who came into her life when he visited Beamish. She served him an elderflower cordial in the tea room and thought he was nice. They’ve now been an item for 15 months.

Ailsa at Beamish

It’s lovely to see her so obviously content and she’s a shining example of what can be achieved when employers look beyond the label.

On September 16, businesses are being invited by Sir Peter Vardy, chairman of The Vardy Group, to The Sage, Gateshead, for an event organised by the North East Autism Society. “Employment Futures” is aimed at encouraging more companies to see the benefits of employing people with autism.

“Beamish is a strong example of an organisation which has taken a positive, proactive approach to overcoming the perception surrounding autism, and Ailsa is absolute proof that autism is not a barrier to being a valuable employee,” says the society’s chief executive John Phillipson.

A lot of progress has been made but there’s still a long way to go, and the event on September 16 is aimed at spreading the message. We want to encourage other companies to help us to provide supported, meaningful, competitive and diverse job opportunities for adults and young people with autism in the North-East.

Ailsa is happy to endorse the message to employers:

Please don’t pre-judge us, just because of the label.

She has every intention of being at The Sage on September 16, although she had to check first that it doesn’t clash with one of her shifts at Beamish.

She wouldn’t dream of missing one of those – even if the Number 8 bus does go the long way.

“Employment Futures” takes place at The Sage, Gateshead, between 12.45pm and 3pm on September 16.

To book a place, please register on Event Brite or email [email protected]