- Niall Potter, 18, from Liverpool, wants his journey to inspire other autistic people
- He’s about to start training to be an emergency gas engineer, potentially saving lives
- Gas network Cadent made the offer after a first-of-its-kind engineering internship
An autistic teenager is about to start training to save lives and property, as an emergency gas engineer, after massively impressing bosses during a first-of-its-kind internship.
Niall Potter, 18, is the first graduate to land an apprenticeship in an engineering role
from a scheme that supports Liverpool people with special educational needs and disabilities.
Local gas network Cadent is one of 20 employers to back Liverpool City Council’s ‘Intern to Work’
supported internship programme, which helps 16 to 24 year olds gain experience to secure a job.
Now, after completing his year-long internship, Niall, from Speke, has accepted an offer to start an apprenticeship which will see him train to be a Cadent first-call operative (FCO).
He’ll join a team of engineers ready day and night, 365 days a year, to deal with reports of gas leaks. Once fully trained, Niall will deal with incidents across Cadent’s Merseyside patch.
Niall, whose autism mainly manifests with communication and social anxiety issues, is over the moon. He hopes his achievement can be a catalyst to helping others find their dream job, as well as to encourage more local employers to have confidence to offer similar opportunities.
“I would love it if this steered more companies to employ more people like me,” he said.
“The scale [of autism] is so wide. An apprenticeship like this is perfect for me but won’t be right for everyone. But there will be a right fit, and the right jobs, if we’re just given the chance.”
Martin Wilby, Supported Employment Officer, Intern to Work, Liverpool City Council, described Niall’s story as “immense”.
“Most of our supported interns go on to find work in hospitality, which are also great opportunities and well-suited to their needs. Niall is the first to land an engineering role, which is perfect for him and his skills: his attention to detail and his academic, problem-solving mindset,” said Martin.
Cadent manages the 21,000-mile underground gas network in North West England and the region’s 24/7, 365-day gas emergency service. The North West is one of four regional networks it operates – the others being West Midlands, East of England and North London.
Accredited last year as a Disability Confident Employer
, and determined to lead on diversity and inclusion, it wants its workforce to be representative of the communities it serves.
Cadent’s offices in the Midlands have long supported a local EmployAbility scheme
, working with two specialist schools to provide year-long placements. More than 70% of Cadent interns have gone on to gain paid employment, against a national average in this demographic of less than 7%.
Last year, Cadent extended this support to the North West. Elliott Nelson, Head of Customer Operations for the Merseyside area at Cadent, was adamant from the start that he wanted to focus the Cadent offer on the core discipline of the gas network – engineering.
“Setting out on this journey, I was keen for this to be a first – to provide an engineering internship, because that’s what we do here,” said Elliott. “We knew that would be something new for Intern to Work, and new for Cadent too, but we wanted to push the boundaries.”
He added: “The reason why Niall joined us on the internship can be traced to his autism, but I can say hand-on-heart that that’s had no influence on the offer of an apprenticeship. He’s earned that, by proving to us and proving to himself that he’s got what we’re looking for.
“We’ve seen a massive difference from the young man who first walked through the door, at the start of the internship, to what we see in Niall now. He’s shown that he can do the job and that he’ll be a great asset to the company and our customers.”
Also incredibly proud is his mum, Sharon, 51, who burst into tears when she heard about the apprenticeship offer. “The opportunity he has been given is amazing, it really is,” said Sharon.
“Niall deserves this. He has had a hard life and went through school with so many people saying there’s nothing wrong with him. When Niall was younger he just couldn’t verbalise things, and he would get very angry about it. I was always told it was down to my ‘bad parenting’.
“Then a family member showed me the National Autistic Society website
and, as I started to read about it, what autism is, I realised I was reading about my son. I just started crying, right there and then, not because I was sad but because I realised at last there was an answer.”
Niall eventually joined Abbot’s Lea
, a specialist SEND school, and one of five such specialist schools and colleges in Liverpool that Intern to Work supports.
Sharon said: “One man there, Anthony McVerry, took Niall under his wing. We owe so much to him. He gave Niall and me unconditional support, no matter what, and he helped shape Niall into the young man he is today. And I really don’t know what to say to Cadent, except I am so grateful.”
Martin Wilby said: “To see the progress that Niall has made over his internship with Cadent is just amazing. Every one of our success stories always is.
“In the three years of the Intern to Work programme, we’ve supported over 30 young people into paid employment. They are all life-changing opportunities – our young people get money in their pockets, they build a new network of friends and it keeps them healthy, both physically and mentally. It gives them opportunity to contribute to society like everyone else.”
Niall added: “The one thing that stands out prominently over the internship is that I have come a long way with my communication skills. I know that’s my main weak point, but I have grown better at talking to customers and I know I will keep improving on that.”
What is autism?
Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world.
There are approximately 700,000 autistic adults and children in the UK.
All autistic people have difficulties with communication and social interaction.
Autism is a spectrum condition. This means autistic people have their own strengths and varying and complex needs, from 24-hour care to simply needing clearer communication and a little longer to do things at work and school.
Although everyone is different, people on the autism spectrum may:
- be under or oversensitive to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light or colours, which can make everyday life extremely difficult
- be unable to or find it harder to speak, need longer to process information or find it hard to hold conversations
- experience intense anxiety around unexpected change and in social situations
- become so overwhelmed that they experience debilitating physical and emotional ‘meltdowns’ or ‘shutdowns’.
Without the right support or understanding, autistic people can miss out on an education, struggle to find work and become extremely isolated. National Autistic Society research suggests that just 16% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment.