Minister of State for Northern Ireland listens to perspectives of autistic people.

Left to right: Jonathan Mc Murray, Mentor, Specialisterne NI, Sharon Didrichsen, MD, Specialisterne NI, Minister Burns, Adam Craig, Elaine Stephens, Head of Programmes, Specialisterne NI, Karl Ritchie.


On a visit to Northern Ireland in the run up to Autism Acceptance Month, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland visited social enterprise Specialisterne NI and met with autistic people to discuss how the government may support autistic people to secure and progress in careers. The Minister met with autistic people at the Specialisterne NI offices who attended both in person and via Zoom.

The Minister heard about the experiences of members of the autistic community at Specialisterne NI and was curious to learn more about ‘Count Me IN,’ a new programme funded by the UK Government through the UK Community Renewal Fund. Count Me IN pilots Specialisterne NI’s community model of employability support, which has been developed with the autistic community at Specialisterne, and which has enjoyed success with reported increases in confidence, feeling represented and socially connected, and which has led to many members of the community starting out on and progressing in careers across diverse sectors in N Ireland. For the first time, Count Me IN brings this community model of employability support to people who are autistic and to people who are otherwise neurodivergent, including people who are dyslexic, and people who have ADHD, OCD, Dyspraxia or Tourette’s Syndrome.

Members of the community advised the Minister on some of the key issues faced by autistic people in N Ireland. These included waiting times to receive a diagnosis, autistic women being misdiagnosed or not receiving a diagnosis (autistic women can present autistic traits differently to men), and support needed for teachers and GPs to have a better understanding and awareness of autism and neurodiversity. The Minister also heard from Jonathan McMurray, a mentor at Specialisterne NI, who shared about his employment journey, and, alongside others, commented on the added value autistic people can offer an employer such as unique insights, appreciations and approaches to tasks.

The Minister mentioned how the autistic community at Specialisterne was an example of a community ‘levelling up.’ A member of the autistic community commented ‘To the Minister’s point, programmes like Specialisterne offer are like ‘levelling up,’ they’re also like ‘taking back control’ to use another popular phrase, i.e., as an autistic person I get to take back control of my own life through the programmes!’

One member of the autistic community relayed to the Minister how, upon receiving a diagnosis of autism and asking ‘What services and organisations exist to support me?’, they were told there weren’t any. They added: ‘I only came across Specialisterne and the ALL2gether group at Specialisterne by chance through a twitter post about their services. Being involved in the ALL2gether group is brilliant, and has definitely helped me a lot with both building my confidence and having a sense of community’

Part of an international network that works across 15 countries, Specialisterne is a pioneer of ‘Autism at Work’, an international movement, which supports companies to identify and reduce the barriers autistic people face entering the workplace. It also helps companies to develop working environments that help autistic people thrive at work.

Sharon Didrichsen, Founder and Managing Director at Specialisterne NI, shared with the Minister the journey of the autistic community at Specialisterne NI to date, and how listening to the autistic community had been fundamental in supporting autistic people to overcome barriers to careers, and has led to a community which supports each other to get ready for and secure careers, to thrive in the workplace and to progress up the career ladder. ‘We enjoyed meeting with the Minister today who got to experience the autistic community at Specialisterne and hear first-hand the different experiences of members of the community. It was good to discuss the different challenges members of the autistic community can face and how the government may assist with these, and to share with the Minister how the autistic community can solve longstanding barriers to employment simply by working together. In the words of a member of the autistic community at Specialisterne ‘We don’t need therapy; we just need each other.’’

Following his visit Minister of State for Northern Ireland Conor Burns said:

“I feel extremely privileged to have been able to meet some of the dedicated & passionate people who support Specialisterne NI’s ‘Count Me IN’ programme during my visit.

“This programme does brilliant work in supporting and helping neurodivergent people who are unemployed or economically inactive prepare for and secure employment. I’m proud that the Government is able to support some of those people that I have met today to start, or take the next step in, their career with funding the UK Community Renewal Fund.”

 Specialisterne NI

Specialisterne NI is a Community Interest Company, which is not for private profit, and which is part of the Specialisterne international network. Specialisterne NI works to support neurodivergent people. It also helps employers recruit and retain neurodivergent people and grow diverse effective teams.

Founded in Belfast in 2014, Specialisterne NI has a team of 14 who support neurodivergent people and employers so that more neurodivergent people secure and sustain better careers.

Count Me IN is a programme for neurodivergent people to start out on or continue careers, which is funded by the UK Government through the UK Community Renewal Fund.

For more information contact Sharon Didrichsen Email: Mobile: 07565 936191 Website: Address: Specialisterne NI, Skainos, 239 Newtownards Road, Belfast BT4 1AF

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *