GMB breaks down barriers around autism and apprenticeships

Unions are able to offer the support of trained representatives to help apprentices who are disabled and those with developmental disabilities such as autism.

As a young man with autism, David Herbert faced some significant challenges during his mechanical engineering Advanced Apprenticeship at the Sellafield nuclear power plant in Cumbria.

The kind of communication problems that are common among people on the spectrum sometimes led to conflict when David and his co-workers misunderstood each other, while his greater dependence on his parents (another common characteristic) made his transition from school to work a bumpier ride than for many of his peers. 

But the quality of his work was never in doubt: he won a company award recognising his contribution in and outside work, and he was a finalist in the apprentice of the year category at the local Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Cumbria awards. 

However, after he completed his apprenticeship, there was no full-time position available in the transport department where he was first placed, so the company asked Carl Lewthwaite to help find an alternative place for David to progress in the business (Carl is the disability lead on the GMB National Equality Forum and works as the company disability, equality and welfare adviser at Sellafield). 

Since Carl had supported people with autism before and has a nephew who is autistic, he knew it would be important to get to know David himself and learn about the barriers he himself faced in the workplace.

Carl explained:

I had to learn and understand the social barriers through David and then use that understanding and my knowledge of the business to come up with somewhere more suitable, where there would be a real job for an apprentice coming out of his time."

After getting to know David by spending time with him at work, visiting him at home and talking to his parents, Carl decided the young man would make a good addition to the team at Calder Hall, the now decommissioned site where workers are removing tens of thousands of fuel rods from its four reactors.

Carl added:

I had a sense of what working life was like in that department because I’d personally supported other people who worked there, and knew the kind of people he’d be working with, and that there was a low turnover of staff."

Once the human resources department agreed the move, Carl regularly spent time supporting David and his new team leader, who had never worked with anyone on the spectrum before.

The new placement worked brilliantly: not only did David thrive in his new surroundings, but his team leader developed hitherto unsuspected paternal qualities that meant the two of them acquired the nickname ‘dad and lad’. 

Carl says:

They don’t work together any more, but the team leader will tell you openly and honestly that working with David changed him as a person, which is wonderful."

After three years in the department, David was encouraged to apply for a promotion by the head of engineering: although he was initially hesitant that he would be able to progress, David accepted Carl’s help with interview preparation and secured his current role as an equipment engineer.

Now 30 years old, David continues to enjoy his work at Calder Hall. David said:

The support that I received has eventually led me to overcome the hurdles and succeed in the workplace.

One thing that I think is demonstrated in my story is not so much the support the union can provide to one individual but what benefits can be gleaned if both employer and union work together."

This case study first appeared in “Unionlearn - Unions supporting high-quality Apprenticeships” which can be downloaded from the unionlearn website at