‘It gave me hope’ Toby says of Cornwall’s Positive People project
“I wasn’t leaving the house, I couldn’t speak to anyone, I was incredibly depressed. It was just the darkest time in my life,” says Toby Wootton.
Toby, now 30, was diagnosed with autism and dyspraxia, a condition affecting physical co-ordination, at the age of 10. Despite his diagnosis, Toby achieved a national diploma in Information and Communications Technology and went on to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Animation from Plymouth College of Art in 2013.
Living with autism
When it came to finding employment however, Toby, like many people on the autistic spectrum faced with traditional recruitment processes, was overlooked.
“That’s when things began to fall apart,” says Toby. “I would have interviews and then they wouldn’t call. I was actually told during an interview that I wouldn’t get the job because of my autism. It felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Faced with what felt like insurmountable barriers to work, Toby developed depression and anxiety and spent the next seven years unemployed.
He says: “I was having to rely on everyone else around me, that was the hardest part.”
Positive People, Cornwall
That’s when Toby was referred to National Lottery funded Positive People project in Cornwall, a lifeline for people who are unemployed to build confidence, skills and gain a sense of hope for the future.
Positive People - which runs their programmes in Devon, Somerset and Yorkshire also - offers a myriad of activities designed for participants to build confidence and meet new people including photography, mountain biking, music, art and volunteering all while acquiring new skills and hobbies.
The programme offers specialist training over 16 weeks and is run in partnership with The CHAOS Group and funded by the Building Better Opportunities programme - a project jointly funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and the European Social Fund. It supports over 1,300 individuals who are out of work and face a range of barriers to build their skills, confidence and motivation.
After completing the programme, Toby volunteered his own time to help others find their feet.
“I know what it’s like to struggle,” he says. “I just want to help other people get their confidence back. I help people develop in an area they’re interested in, whether that’s photography, animation, video and editing, podcasts or design. It’s really rewarding.”
Looking to the future
Toby’s newfound confidence is a testament to the programme. Now working as a Creative Lead Support Worker at The CHAOS Group, Toby is committed to building pathways and opportunities for people on the autistic spectrum to prove themselves in the workplace through volunteering and is currently editing a short film about inclusive recruitment. The film is aimed at changing the perceptions of employers to help them realise the talent they’re missing out on in the workforce.
“I feel incredibly proud to be at this point,” he says. “When you have autism, meeting someone new for the first time can be incredibly stressful let alone being interviewed.
I get a sensory overload, my thoughts go too fast to process, I take in so much information at once it becomes white noise.
“I can’t read emotions and in an interview, I’m trying to process someone new and compose myself to talk. It’s just a huge hurdle to get over. But, given enough time people with autism can open up. We just need the space to do that.”
His advice for people finding themselves in similar stressful situations?
“Really concentrate on breathing slowly and focus on one thing in front of you, notice its shape, its colour, how it works. This will help to clear your mind, slow your breath, and help you focus.”
Living with autism can make you feel isolated and lonely. Our paper Bringing people together: how community action can tackle loneliness and social isolation offers insights and learning from the community and voluntary sector about how you can tackle social isolation or support someone who is feeling lonely.