Prince Edward, the Duke of Edinburgh, co-founder of Harry Specters Mona Shah, and employee Bruce Hall create a chocolate bar for the royal visit. Image: Keith Heppel for Harry Specters
When he was just eleven years old, Ash Shah had already started dreaming about running his own restaurant, mocking up pretend menus on his laptop. Asked what he would call his little eatery, he declared, “Harry Specters!” a name plucked from his imagination.
But his parents, Mona and Shaz Shah, worried that their autistic son wouldn’t have the opportunities to gain the work experience necessary to make his childhood fantasies a reality.
“The problem is there’s no jobs that are suitable for autistic people”, Mona told the Big Issue.
Originally from Pakistan, Mona and Shaz realised early on that Ash was on the spectrum, and knew that the minimal support available for people with learning disabilities and neurodiversity wouldn’t be enough to help their son achieve his potential.
They were declined visas to move to Australia and Canada due to their son’s autism, but in 2006 secured a visa to move to the UK.
“So I didn’t want us to come all the way here, and still have Ash facing these issues when he grows up”, she continued.
Around 700,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum, however this is a largely misunderstood and undiagnosed neurodiversity. Autistic people are the least likely to be in work of any other disabled group, according to research from the Office for National Statistics. Just one in five are in employment, compared to around half of people with disabilities overall.
So the Shahs decided they would need to create their own workplace where Ash’s strengths could shine. And, of course, they already had a name in mind.
But why chocolate?
After attending a chocolate workshop during a family holiday to Scotland, Mona realised that the work involved was “quite routine, repetitive and structured, things have to be a certain temperature, and that it might be something good for autistic people”.
Harry Specters, producers of luxury chocolates in Cambridgeshire, has now been running for ten years, and was recently visited by Prince Edward, the duke of Edinburgh, in celebration of what the social enterprise has achieved.
To date, Harry Specters has enabled over 300 autistic people to gain experience in the workplace, providing 29,392 hours of full employment and 1,871 hours of work experience. And the business has been a raging success too.
“We are expanding, we are growing as a business, and it’s because of them,” said Mona. “And that’s the message that needs to go out to other businesses. Just reasonable adjustments, tiny reasonable adjustments, mainly just treating them like human beings.”
“You don’t have to wear kid gloves with [our employees]” she said. “I tell them ‘there’s no hand holding here. I know you are capable of doing this’.”
Unveiling a plaque to commemorate his visit, the Duke thanked the Shah family for the business they have created and the people they’ve employed, saying: “I think this is very very important, so I wish you the very best of luck and hope there will be many more years of making chocolate.”
Zoey Clenshaw, who is 32, says that due to her autism “there are a lot of things like sensory overload, things like workplace politics, that I find very difficult to navigate despite being perfectly capable of doing a job”.
“It becomes quite frustrating when I feel like I’m doing things I’ve always been told, that I need to do to be a good employee, working hard and being punctual, but they don’t seem to get you anywhere because you can’t be likeable enough.”
She joined Harry Specters nearly two years ago as the social enterprise’s operations executive, managing customer service, social media and processing orders, while becoming even more of a “chocoholic” in the process.
“It’s different here because there’s a general understanding that every employee is different, everyone has their own habits, way of working and way of thinking. And rather than that being a detriment to their career, it’s nurtured. It’s applauded.”
She believes employers need to increase their understanding of autism so that “perfectly good and hardworking employees aren’t deprived of jobs just because maybe they need to work from home a bit more often or fluorescent lights give them a headache”.
Ash, now 25, continues to work at Harry Specters, popping chocolates out of the moulds, filling the boxes with chocolates and printing out orders. The small team of family and colleagues like to joke that, really, it’s his business after all, and his parents are working for him.
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