Eileen Hopkins

hopkinsHaving worked in the voluntary sector for most of my career, I expected the hard-edged corporate world to be very different. What a surprise to find a dynamic commercial organisation with a strong sense of social purpose. With the stated aim, “Global Impact, One Word at a Time,” Ai-Media seeks to enable access all over the world for those facing challenges around communication and understanding, and embraces the duties and responsibilities that come with that. Working here has certainly changed my idea about what a ‘for profit’ organisation can be.

I was working as an Autism Consultant in 2013 after a long career in the autism field when I met Tony Abrahams, the CEO of Ai-Media, and he shared with me the embryonic technology being developed to support the learning and teaching of students with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I was immediately attracted to this new technology, underpinned by research by the University of Melbourne, which held great potential for addressing some of the issues faced by children with an ASD in school. After joining the company, initially as a consultant working with the group to develop and refine the ASD technology, I was invited to join the board in July 2014 and became Executive Director for Ai-Media UK.

How did I get here? Starting in education, I soon realised that my interests and skills lay in effecting change and persuading others to be involved in providing the best for people with an ASD. After working as Development and Information Officer for a regional autism group, I joined The National Autistic Society Board and then the staff, becoming the National Autistic Society’s (NAS) first Director of Development and Outreach and Director of National Services. Running a division that was able to have a profound impact both on services for families and the provision made by local authorities was a joy. It was in this role that I began to undertake consultancy work, something I love doing, and that has been a key part of my working life ever since. Supporting and advising on the development of international organisations allowed my facilitating skills to be honed, and gave me a greater understanding of the cultural issues affecting perceptions of ASD.

Retirement after the NAS was not an option which appealed to me, and so I relished the chance to join Dame Stephanie Shirley in her mission to drive forward biomedical research in the UK autism field. I also became Autism Consultant to The Shirley Foundation, a position I am proud to hold today.

One of the most interesting aspects of consultancy has been the opportunity to see ASD in many different cultures, from the Far East to the Middle East and the US. The issues for families are very much the same as for all families, and the children and adults with ASD I have met are remarkably similar in their outlook, even as specific circumstances vary dramatically. The basic concerns in Riyadh are the same as those in Singapore, Baltimore and Dagenham. Worries about how their children will cope in an increasingly technological world: will they get a job, will they be treated kindly, who will look after their sons and daughters after they are gone? These concerns are universal.

Ai-Media is in a great position to enable things to happen, as it is built on a sustainable base. Visible Classroom offers a route to improvement and development for teachers; Ai-Live for ASD addresses the anxieties, audio processing issues and misunderstandings of students with an ASD; and the tried and tested technology to support the deaf that began in Australia is being delivered into the UK. Now exciting possibilities are being presented to people with a range of challenges, to help them to participate in society on an equal footing in schools, universities and the workplace.

Interestingly, while the technology was developed to enable access to people with perceived disabilities, it is being welcomed as a tool by a wide range of commercial companies wanting to record and use captions, and the transcripts of meetings ranging from interviews to conferences and legal meetings. The possibilities, we are realising, are endless.

It’s been quite a journey from one of the first schools for autism in the UK to the heady world of commercial enterprise. In the voluntary sector, a culture prevails which says, “Be the best you can for others.” Ai-Media, although a profit-making business, shares this ethic more than I could have imagined.