Study in Empowering People with Disabilities

Study in Empowering People with Disabilities

Civil Society Case: 3Dnovations & Autus

How do you influence decisions if they are made according to rules that are clear to everyone except you?  How do you make your voice heard if you have grown up with an unpredictable barrage of disapproval, exclusion and ridicule whenever you try to express yourself?  Especially if you've therefore withdrawn from the world, maybe to the point of not speaking at all? 

This problem is faced by many people with autism.  It is often compounded by economic disenfranchisement: according to a study by the National Autistic Society, just 15% of autistic adults had a full-time job and a third had no job or benefits[1].  The two problems can become a vicious circle, with lack of confidence making it harder to find work, and unemployment further undermining confidence.  The social enterprise 3DNovations, along with its charitable arm Autus, is breaking this cycle by teaching people with autism employability skills, improving their confidence and their chances of finding a job. 

Our User-Led Approach

Hao2's founder, Nicola Herbertson, had the idea for an innovative new way of teaching life skills to people with autism when she noticed how members of her family with autism became much more sociable in online environments such as the virtual world game Minecraft.  The choice to socialise online is a decision many people with autism make.  A study by the University of Cambridge into making higher education more autism-friendly noted the need to offer more options to interact online because many people with autism are more comfortable with such interaction[2].  Likewise, research at Carleton University, Ottawa noted that autistic people showed a strong preference for online interaction and hypothesised that this might be due to the familiar structures of online communication, the ability to choose topics of conversation and/or the option of responding in one's own time[3]

Hao2 and Autus take on board the recommendation in the Cambridge study that online interaction should be a starting point.  Our courses are designed to use the safe virtual environment to help people with autism reach beyond their comfort zone.  For instance, participants may start off communicating by text in the virtual world, but move on to voice as they gain confidence.  Likewise, if a participant finds a particular environment difficult or overwhelming (e.g. public transport was a recurrent theme in the last set of local authority Autism Self-Assessment returns[4]), a simulation can be built in order to practise until it becomes familiar.  This online delivery method also allows people with autism to take courses from a venue of their choice. 

As well as delivering our courses in a way that echoes the social environments people with autism often choose, we also give individual learners considerable decision-making power over their course content.   Participants evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and create personal projects to address the weaknesses and build on the strengths.  As well as each user having a virtual 'island' he/she can call home and customise to suit his/her special interests, any user can contribute his/her personal touch to the space by creating things that enhance the environment.  Examples include the taster islands we use to introduce people to how the virtual world works, which still bear the names of participants who helped build them.  Our learners engage in peer mentoring and, on completion of courses, can gain work experience training others to use the virtual world and/or building customised 3D environments for local authorities and other organisations (such as JobcentrePlus Swindon, now the proud owner of an exact digital replica of its premises for a Journey to Employment project) who have ordered our services.  They say that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism, but our virtual environment can adapt infinitely to suit individual differences because the individual users build it. 

This emphasis on handing decision-making power to people with autism carries through to the structure of both organisations.  80% of Hao2/Autus' staff have autism and they hold posts at all hierarchical levels.  Hao2’s courses have been designed with considerable input from people with autism, in accordance with the EU’s principles of Responsible Research and Innovation, which highlight the importance of engaging and including everyone in the process of developing solutions to societal issues[5].  This has led to highly flexible modular courses, to facilitate scheduling around whatever other support or special interest activities might be going on in participants' lives.  In particular, because Autus is a disabled people's user-led organisation (DPULO), staff with autism have had significant input into its website design, ensuring high contrast and maximum use of videos, and the application route for individuals joining courses, allowing applications to be completed by the user or a nominated individual and making taster sessions available before committing to a course. 

Our Results

This user-led approach, autism-friendly by design because people with autism have so much of a say in every aspect of it, is making impressive progress in helping people with autism become economically active and therefore more empowered in the wider world.  The most obvious answer to the question “How do you know it's working?” is: “Because our alumni are!” Hao2's most recently completed project with Winchester Jobcentreplus so far has 40% work-related outcomes for people receiving Employment Support Allowance, compared to 10.2% national average for the Work Programme. The first cohort of learners in our pilot scheme for the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) Journey to Employment at Swindon Jobcentreplus have already reached 20% employment outcomes in week 11 of a 12 week course.

Furthermore, our courses help participants achieve lasting success as these results tend to climb with time, indicating that while some participants take longer than others to find work, once they find it, they tend to keep it. For instance, 90% of the learners from a 2011 3DNovations project in Croydon are now in paid employment and two of them have started their own businesses. Alumni from past projects now work in roles as diverse as software tester for a SaaS company, local council finance officer, technical support for a college and radio presenter. 

One reason for our high rate of work-related outcomes is that our courses help learners acquire valuable life skills. Social enterprises Balance CIC and Pure Innovations in Kingston and Stockport created created an innovative star-shaped scale in the virtual world to help participants track their progress and reported significant improvement in 8 out of the 10 measures, including confidence in meeting others, openness to new ideas and IT skills. Winchester Jobcentreplus also scored participant progression, achievement and confidence as high or very high in their evaluation of the course.  These transferable skills are evidently a great help in making one's voice heard in many areas of life. 

Future Opportunities

1) Career progression

A possible extension of Hao2's scope could come in the shape of a course assisting people with autism in advancing in their careers.  After all, many people with autism are highly intelligent and should be capable of moving up to positions with great responsibilities.  Benedetto De Martino at the California Institute of Technology has highlighted the superior ability of people with autism to make rational decisions, while Dr Laurent Mottron at the University of Montreal employs several researchers with autism because some people on the spectrum have extremely high intelligence and exceptional memory[6].  Legendary entrepreneur Peter Thiel believes Asperger syndrome is an advantage for business leadership because it leads one to think unconventionally and thus innovate[7],  while Danish recruitment agency Specialisterne recruits people on the autistic spectrum for many world-renowned technology firms due to their increased perceptual capacity and pattern recognition[8]

However, talent alone is often not enough to turn a job into a career.  It is well known that most jobs are not advertised: the percentage varies, but Sydney's JMC Academy recently estimated the number of jobs not advertised as 80%[9].  The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has already warned that those with more access to career guidance and the hidden jobs market through family connections tend to do better than less privileged people with greater ability[10].  This problem is likely disproportionately to affect people with autism, who often cannot pick up the unwritten rules as they go along and may also have parents on the spectrum, who grew up in the years before autism-specific employment support and may be disadvantaged as a result.

Moreover, if the company that hired individuals with autism for their unconventional thinking and attention to detail decides to change its strategy, the company culture can soon become much less autism-friendly.  Many modern business strategies advocate standardising in favour of “cultural fit” criteria, ostensibly in the name of innovation.  In practice, however, this often means that the proponents of “cultural fit” hire and promote only those like themselves, blocking entry to anyone different and isolating those of a different mindset who are already there.  This leads to organisational decision-making processes and policies that are less tolerant of other perspectives, including autism, and risk embedding inequality.  In the long run, the reduced diversity (including neurodiversity) caused by this practice of valuing similarity and closeness to a clique above all else can also harm the business, because as Temple Grandin pointed out: “What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool?  You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.”[11]  Even when a company wants to promote someone with autism, many management books and training programmes give very general guidelines for dealing with people and gloss over specifics that may not be obvious to somebody with autism. 

Hao2 and Autus have begun working to solve this problem by partnering with Resound Training, a professional development training company, to devise a way of delivering leadership and management training via the virtual world.  The first cohort of learners has begun testing out this new method of delivering this course in preparation for a qualification from the Institute of Leadership and Management.  It is hoped that this will provide people with high-functioning autism with a way of reaching their full potential.

2) Virtual world to promote citizenship

As discussed above, Hao2 and Autus are already using the virtual world to help people with autism rehearse dealing with environments they find difficult or overwhelming, to help them cope better in real life and achieve their desired outcomes.  We have been involved in a project to create a virtual clinic to help people with disabilities take control of their health and we are currently devising a way to present the stages of using a job centre as a series of interactive dialogues in a virtual world replica of the job centre participants will use in real life. 

While presenting our services to local councils, we have found that some of them are keen to explore the possibilities of presenting local authority services via the virtual world.  For example, Camden Council, which has had to cut back on space and staff for interaction with residents visiting council offices, has raised the possibility of using a virtual council office, accessible from anywhere, to make the services it offers more visible to residents.  This would put people with autism and neurotypicals (those who do not have autism, a learning disability or a mental health condition) on an equal footing from the start. 

A senior civil servant at the DWP's Office for Disability Issues has also expressed an interest in using the virtual world to help people with autism make one of the most important decisions a citizen can make: namely, how to vote.  As well as creating a simulation of the polling station so people with autism know what to expect when they go to vote, there are suggestions that the various candidates could present themselves and what they stand for in the virtual world, allowing people with autism to hear all sides of the debate and decide away from the often noisy and unpredictable atmosphere of political hustings.  Some serving Members of Parliament have already shown interest in creating virtual world avatars of themselves, so the age of the virtual world citizen may not be far off. 

3) Sharing best practice globally

The European Union is beginning to examine provision in member states for people with autism, which should hopefully lead to improvements in some countries as very few countries currently have comprehensive autism strategies and support can be patchy even in those that do[12].  To that end, it is helpful that the European Parliament's Written Declaration on Autism[13] recognises that children with autism grow up to become adults with autism and will need support in their adult lives.  However, the declaration paints too negative a picture of autism, dwelling on the difficulties people with autism face, rather than their talents, and setting vague goals that risk allowing countries where autism provision is currently inadequate to rest on their laurels after small successes, when in fact people with autism are capable of so much more[14]

In the absence of an ambitious autism strategy for Europe as a whole, Hao2 and Autus are engaging in transnational EU programmes such as RRI-Tools[15] and building local partnerships in improve the life chances of people with autism locally in various EU member states.  In the Republic of Ireland, we are partnering with University College Dublin's SMARTlab to raise awareness of the potential for technology like our virtual world to improve outcomes and opportunities for people with autism.  In Italy, we have been

linking to the charity AIPA via the virtual world and encouraging them in their research into the employment needs of local people with autism, with a view to obtaining funding so we can pilot our technology there.  In Spain, we are working with arts organisation HeARTs, which is seeking funding to do a 3D art therapy project for people with autism and mental health conditions, enabling best practice to be shared across the UK, Spain and China. 

China is another part of the world that is beginning to improve its provision for people with autism.  Hao2 staff have visited China on two UKTI trade delegations to research autism support and found that although early years provision is quite extensive, there is much room for improvement in services to young people and adults with autism, as well as an opportunity to make provision more effective by using more modern technology.  We are currently working in partnership with the charity Nestworks to apply for funding for a pilot project teaching employability and life skills to people with autism in China. 

All these partner organisations have space on the open source AIM grid server, which we donated to enable autism organisations around the world to share best practice for the use of virtual world technology to help people with autism.  We have already carried out one project to raise awareness of how best to use virtual world technology to benefit people on the spectrum across the UK, the EU, the Commonwealth and China.  As autism awareness around the world improves, we are eager to bring the benefits of our approach to as many countries as possible. 


Hao2 and Autus' mission is to help people on the autistic spectrum acquire the skills and confidence to participate fully in many areas of life, most notably the workplace with all the economic empowerment that brings.  Our employability and life skills courses are delivered in a virtual environment largely designed by people with autism for people with autism, and in a manner that allows individual users extensive powers of decision over where, when and how they learn.  Our user-led courses are leading to marked improvement in participants' ability to find and keep jobs, as well as the life skills needed to participate fully in decision making and in wider society.  We look forward to using our virtual world to enable career progression, make interaction with more services and the democratic process more autism-friendly and help people with autism around the world choose a better future.

CommunityIndividual Ltd



Working together to make a world of difference

© 2015                               Beth Charlesworth (Author)                        Nicola Herbertson (Contributor)


[2] Hastwell, J., Harding, J., Martin, N., Baron-Cohen, S., 'Asperger Syndrome Student Project 2009-12: Final Project Report, June 2013',

[3] Johnson, J., 'Exploring the Social Experiences of Adults on the Autistic Spectrum: Views on Friendships, Dating and Partnerships',








[11] Grandin, T., 'The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's', Future Horizons, 2008

[12] 'Protecting the Rights of People with Autism in the Fields of Education and Employment', eds. Della Fina, V., and Cera, R.,*~hmac=f669c662e7a6b151b1943b3a9d74e8cc99bb4a82152e0eab1254365fb7c0e8e5


[14] For a more in-depth discussion of how the European Parliament Written Declaration on Autism paints too negative a picture of what is possible for people with autism, please see the Autus blog post 'Europe and Autism: United in Neurodiversity?',