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How I found my way

S A L T to social worker

S A L T to social worker

Koren Luddington - Social Worker Autism and Neurodivergence Team - Portsmouth City Council

Becoming a Social Worker was a slightly unexpected career path for me.  After qualifying with a degree in Speech and Language Therapy at university, I fully intended on having a life-long career as a Speech and Language Therapist. During my training, I took a real interest in Learning Disability and Autism and got my initial post-qualification experience in this area.  Being young and responsibility free, after a couple of years of working, I spontaneously decided to leave the country and explore the world for a year.  Unfortunately, in this time the UK went into recession and when I returned home, there were limited opportunities arising in the NHS. 

A woman looking at the camera
Koren Luddington is a Social worker in Portsmouth

At this point, the novel pilot scheme 'Step Up to Social Work' was brought to my attention.  At first, I was only paying the idea lip service, as Social Work didn't really appeal to me - albeit, I knew very little about it.  However, my skills and qualifications did tally with the requirements of this employment-based route into Social Work, which would also secure me a Masters degree upon completion.  As I progressed through the stages of the application process, I began to find the subject varied and interesting.  Through the 18 months of on-the-job training and studying, I felt more and more passionately about Social Work ideology and that this was in fact the most suitable career choice for me.

I worked for 10 years in Children's Services, giving me an excellent foundation to build and hone my Social Work skills.  When I saw a job advertised specialising in autism, I felt like this would be a great opportunity to return to this area of interest as well as improving my knowledge and experience of working in Adult Services.  Since my initial experience of working in this area, there has been enormous progression in the understanding and approach towards Autism as a cognitive variance within the wider context of neurodivergence.  I have enjoyed refreshing and updating my understanding of this shift in thinking and find it fascinating that there continues to be a tussle between whether autism should be considered via a social model or medical model framework. 

Listening to the lived experiences of the neuro-divergent people that I am working with, really got me thinking about many facets and themes that recurringly have impacted on these young people's lives.  For example, is a diagnosis beneficial?  If so, why is it needed and what support is inaccessible for those without a diagnosis?  For what reason are autistic people 6 times more likely to experience mental health crisis than the general population?How well do universal services understand and accommodate the neuro-divergent needs of individuals?

I found these kinds of questions sparking my curiosity and I was keen to explore whether there may be some responses to these questions.  So, when the opportunity was presented to link with Portsmouth University as a visiting researcher, I was interested to find out more.

Never having associated myself with 'academia', I was unsure whether my skills and knowledge would meet the necessary requirements for the role.  It seemed like a completely different world from my day-to-day working experience; a world that I had perceived as being elusive and exclusive.  My concerns were alleviated as I was matched with a mentor from the University, who was empathic and reassuring of my self-doubts.  She made me feel as though all questions were valid and she was able to provide explanations that felt personalised and relevant to my field of work. 

Practically, my mentor has helped me to get set up on the University computer system, showed me how to access the library journals, search facilities and introduced me to new referencing software (which was not a 'thing' when I was last studying!)  Crucially, my mentor has helped me to structure and narrow down my thought processes to identify a focus and objective for my research ideas.  She has encouraged me to begin to critically analyse relevant topics and to identify and categorise themes in research.  

Undertaking training in realist evaluation has taught me the theoretical and structural basis that I needed to be able to consider the functionality of neurodivergent support services, within the importance of contextual systems and environments.  It's inspiring to feel that researching the intricacies of service implementation can help provide much needed information; going some way to begin answering those initial stirring questions.

My aim is to continue refining my ideas and learning from the wealth of research available in this area.  If this could lead to working on a research project that would demonstrate an evidence base for useful and valuable support services for the neurodivergent community, then this would be hugely worthwhile progress towards improved opportunities and outcomes for autistic and neurodivergent people.

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