Host Lori Boll speaks with Max Simpson. Max has demonstrated a proven track record in the inclusion space from establishing 3 vocational training centers, modelling 11 inclusive and sustainable social businesses, and delivering essential consultancy services to organizations seeking enhanced inclusivity. Earlier this year, Max inaugurated a research center dedicated to advancing knowledge in this domain. A fervent advocate for the business case for disability and neuro-inclusion, Max extends an invitation to potential partners to collaborate on a shared mission of fostering an inclusive society.

In today’s podcast Max shares about an exciting collaboration between Steps, a vocational training program they founded in Bangkok Thailand, and St. Andrew’s 107, an international school in the area. Once you hear about this program, you’ll immediately want to start one at your school. 


Max Simpson has demonstrated a proven track record in the inclusion space from establishing 3 vocational training centers, modelling 11 inclusive and sustainable social businesses, and delivering essential consultancy services to organisations seeking enhanced inclusivity. Earlier this year, Max inaugurated a research centre dedicated to advancing knowledge in this domain. A fervent advocate for the business case for disability and neuro-inclusion, Max extends an invitation to potential partners to collaborate on a shared mission of fostering an inclusive society. 

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour. 

Lori: Well, hello, everyone. Today I speak with Max Simpson, and Max has demonstrated a proven track record in the inclusion space from establishing three vocational training centers, modeling 11 inclusive and sustainable social businesses, and delivering essential consultancy services to organizations seeking enhanced inclusivity. Earlier this year, Max inaugurated a research center dedicated to advancing knowledge in this very domain. A fervent advocate for the business case for disability and neuro-inclusion, Max extends an invitation to potential partners to collaborate on a shared mission of fostering an inclusive society. Max is the ultimate inclusion advocate. In fact, Max has so much experience and knowledge, they are one of our SENIA Advisory Board members, and we greatly value their advice.  So today, Max and I will be speaking about an exciting collaboration that STEPS and St. Andrews has been doing and we’ll be sharing about that and learning about that exciting project and I’m not going to talk anymore. So now onto the show. Hello Max and welcome to the podcast. 

Max: Hey Lori. It’s always really, really nice to chat with you and feel suitably uncomfortable to hear someone read all those nice things out here at the same time. Thank you for the very, very nice welcome that I get. 

Lori: Yes. Well, you have been an ultimate advocate and for our listeners who don’t know, my own son benefited from your expertise and organization STEPS. So, you’ve been a guest on our podcast before, and you shared all about this organization, STEPS. And so before we jump into today’s discussion, can you just tell our listeners who may not know about STEPS what it is? 

Max: Yeah, of course. So STEPS is an organization ultimately committed to creating an inclusive society. We do that through three key pillars. So we work to provide access to education for neurodivergent youth and adults. We do that through our vocational training centers, one of which we will talk about today. Our second pillar is around modeling inclusive social businesses. So we have a range of cafes, bakeries and a business service center that provide both access to internships and employment opportunities, but equally a touch point for society to come and see what can be made possible when you are inclusive and the business benefits of doing that and then our third pillar looks at empowerment. So we are working closely with employers and the government. And also our research center to ensure everything we’re doing is research led and that we are working towards changing things at a policy level as well. So it’s many things but for internally for us they all link perfectly together, but I think it’s set up well to make sure we’re always got our eyes on the longer term goal. 

And whilst the individual people that we work with is incredibly important, we hope that the learnings from those individual success stories help create something more structured and framework and policy that can help the many. So, so yes, that’s a little nutshell in a nutshell. 

Lori: Well, I think we’ll have to have you back for a podcast to explain about your research center because that sounds really exciting as well. 

Max: Yeah, I’d love to. I can talk about it all day. So invite me back. 

Lori: Okay. Okay. For sure. And for any of you that want to know where STEPS is, it’s in Bangkok, Thailand. And my own son was a part of that program and benefited from learning how to do some office work, some kitchen work. You set up your restaurant sometimes in the mornings. And I think that was really some of his favorite times of his life so far. So thank you. 

Max: Equally importantly, I remember we had that conversation, right, Braden was one of the first ever trainees we had, who had the level of autism that he presents with and through him being here, we now have a whole program for adults like Braden as well. So we learned from him just as much as he benefited from being here so his sort of legacy lives on. And we actually, we had some visitors recently who asked us why in our bathrooms, do we have wooden on the top of the tanks and we’re like, well, that’s another story. Those little things, right, that help, you know, people understand the small adjustments and accommodations make big, big difference. It’s a big part of what we talk a lot about here to help make those little changes to to everywhere so that people will feel more included in society. So, so yeah, I love it. 

Lori: Braden’s legacy is wooden toilet tank covers. And for those of you listening who have no idea what we’re talking about, my son Braden has a, I guess, a distaste for the porcelain tank covers, and he will let anyone know it. 

Max: It’s all wooden and nicely crafted, but I do minor things in life, let’s say. 

Lori: That’s great. So recently you’ve started a new endeavour within international school in Bangkok. Explain, tell me about it. 

Max: Sure. So we piloted it about two years ago, but the relationship with the previous head of inclusion went back about 10 years. So myself and Lizzy West had been working together in different ways. And she was always very engaged in what STEPS was doing and sending families to us just for support and guidance. And she started to bring her staff here to learn from the way that we work in terms of life skills and employment readiness. And then the opportunity came up to have a bigger level discussion on what this would look like if we put it inside St. Andrews 107. So, I mean, I think. 

There were so many key parts to make this happen, and I think the first one really, really started at the beginning with just this real transparency and honesty from school, which through my own experience of working with lots of schools you don’t often get. Like, lots of schools like to say they’re great at everything, and maybe not tell you what’s really going on behind the scenes. 

But, um, so St.Andrew’s one of several more really clear. We’re not put up life skills and employment readiness, it’s not our skill set. But we have a lot of kids here who need that. How can we work together to make sure they have paths that meet their needs. And we also didn’t want something that was totally segregated. It needed to really be that dream model of totally personalized, and it’s worked. 

Young people who are both doing IB and IGCSE and life skills and employment readiness and their timetables are very, very mixed. And that’s what works for some of them and they have these transcripts that are non -traditional but with the right explanation and evidence that goes with it, they are going on to university, many of them, but equally graduating and going into employment. So the program has two parts. So we have what we call dual learners. So any learner from year eight, so sort of age 13, can start accessing the STEPS program for as many sessions per week as they need. 

Lori: So typically, as you say, age eight?

Max: So it’s very much a secondary slash high school program. 

Lori: Okay, gotcha. 

Max: Yeah, sorry. British versus American. 

Lori: Right, right. 

Max: So and traditionally, as we know, kids would go through to 18 and leave with no qualifications or something that’s not so meaningful for the future. And more than that, that we used to find is that their self -esteem and confidence is pretty low when they came out of education because they’ve just been sat in classes that they can’t access or worse, they’ve been sat in classes where no one’s pushed or encouraged them to grow. So we started with dual learners. 

So we have young people who, you know, all different academic levels or different goals for the future. And the training center sits inside the school in one of its classrooms and has been purposefully selected to be in a space where it’s not near the primary school or any of the younger kids. The school is connected to a transport system. So young people can come off and come straight to the center without feeling like they’re still in a school school, which is nice. And we have trained teachers and admin staff in different departments so that they can be job coaches. So they go for internships and work experience in school. 

We also have a Steps Cafe there, so that also helps you any time of the day that you go in, there will be some of the trainees working there, either doing customer service, making drinks, running the checkout. 

And this, I mean, this is so incredibly important because it’s giving the visibility, both to the teachers in the school, the parents, and, you know, the other students they’re seeing these learners that they perhaps haven’t interacted with much before doing something valuable, and it creates a point of interaction and engagement that traditionally wasn’t there. So we now have lots and lots of mainstream kids who also want to work in the cafe, because we’ve been cool, not something that’s only there for learning support. This has been really cool to see. So it’s this really totally holistic approach where we are integrated at the school at so many different levels. 

It’s not just providing access to education, it’s working with, you know, the eco committee to make sure we are plastic free in the cafe. 

It’s working with the business study students to teach them about social enterprise as a model. It’s working with, you know, the admissions team to do training and tie about how you can talk to families about these different pathways. It’s everywhere and it’s all the time. And I think this is really one of the critical things about it being successful as it wasn’t just this point of referral for any kid that doesn’t fit.  It’s part of school life and everybody who our team that is based there feel like part of the school. We do joint reports, joint parent meetings, joint everything. And I think, yeah, there was a one year pilot. And then from the second academic year, we’ve just gone into the third, the program is pretty much full. So and the pathway now from primary is super clear. So actually, even from elementary, it’s really clear. Parents are then informed from that age. There is something here for your child until 21. 

Lori: Wow. 

Max: We have an additional program called Next Steps. So 18 to 21 can stay on school campus, but doing a very much employment readiness focus program. 

where they will go out to do external internships at our partner companies, but still within the relatively safe supportive community of school. And parents we found really appreciate that because they might not be quite ready to either go off to university or living independently just yet. And yeah, it’s that relief we see from parents, my own child is in this program for full transparency. So we were very motivated to make sure that that works for him just as much as everybody else. But we see the relief from parents of, oh, I’m not going to have to change schools this year or this age like I expected to. I can stay here all the way through. And so can my other children. We’re not having to separate them. 

to go to different schools. And I think, you know, it’s equal. I mean, we get it, right? Schools are businesses and that’s fine. And I think the school is also seeing the return on investment from really, really being inclusive and proactively doing it because they are retaining students for longer and having all members of the family come to one school, which is huge, right? We see so often, oh, those kids go there and all the kids go here. And the nightmare that that creates for parents. 

So, yeah, for me as a parent, similar to you, Lori, that was also really important for us that we created that safety and trust for those families too because we know how the support decreases as our kids get older and the expectation is for them to be more and more independent and communication from school reduces and reduces. And this ensures that that doesn’t happen unless the young person is ready. 

Lori: That’s fantastic. So I have a few questions based on that. One is, so to clarify, to be part of the program students must be a student of St. Andrew’s 107. 

Max: Yes. That’s right. 

Lori: So they need to enroll with the school and go through the traditional like enrollment process. 

Max: Yeah. 

Lori: Fair. And then who runs STEPS? 

Max: So we have two of our coaches running the program there full -time. So they’re our team, but they’re sort of fully integrated into the school. But we are, you know, we are doing the professional development and support for them. And we have our head of education who splits her time between our two campuses to make sure that the support and the guidance is there for the team there too. 

Lori: And do you find that the teachers at St. Andrews are participating quite often in the you said their job training or job coaching? 

Lori: So at the start of every school year we join their like return to school, like in-service day, and we always do a presentation about steps so that any new teachers know what we do. And we always are inundated with requests from different departments that they want to be giving internships and work experience opportunities, please let them know how to help. So we have currently work placement set up in the library, of course in the cafe in the science labs, we have someone working in there as a data entry technician. Also in the office in the drama department in the PE department we have two of our young people working as teaching assistants. 

So there’s six or seven environments already set up where the teaching staff or our admin staff feel supported and trained. And it’s so, I mean, it’s so meaningful. Like it’s safe and supported, but it’s equally, you know, it’s real work. There’s expectations, there’s responsibilities and we’re practicing all those, you know, transferable skills that are needed for the future. And a big part of what we do too, is about creating awareness around accommodations. What might you need to be your best self when you’re working? How does that look? And making sure that all the staff that are working with the dual learners are aware of that too. So they’re… We’ve set up these accommodation stations and different environments that have everything from noise cancelling headsets to sensory tools to timers to communication aids or tech tools as well. So we do a lot on teaching those skills directly to the students, just as much as to the job coaches and then teachers to. 

Lori: Wow. It just sounds all sounds so ideal. I would love to see it in action. 

Max: And so, yeah, so you can pop over. 

Lori: That’s true. Good point. So that’s how your internships work. Are they all within the school setting or do any of your trainees go out into the community? 

Max: Yeah, so we have about 20 or so employment partners that we work with closely across all different sectors and industries. So those who are in the next steps program so 18 to 21, they can do external, we call external internships outside of the school, so we have two about to start that. But our other center that we have has been doing that for four years, so they’re well long running partnerships with those companies. And the goal is that before they finish at 21 they’ll be mostly in full time, you know, predominantly in employment and only coming into the school setting one day a week. So that as soon as they graduate they move into full time paid employment. So I think we should see that happen for the first time. Yeah, with this they’ll happen this academic year for the two of the two of the learners in that program. 

Lori: That’s really exciting. So do you find that people are coming to st. Andrews because they’ve heard about this program and It’s got a reputation of its own. You said you’re full? 

Max: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s two ways. I think the school was already really strong for primary learning support and Secondary as well. Actually they were doing Pretty good up until sort of year eight year nine. So they did have a high number of students already learning support But yeah, also word of mouth and we’ve had lots of kids transfer in from other schools We just had two families moved to Bangkok for this program. So we’re really seeing the word of mouth is there We did a little bit of PR around it, but not so muc.  But I mean you and I know right in parent groups when something opens that is different and there’s only one you go. 

Lori: Exactly. 

Max: Every year we will do open house, one in the morning for parents but one in the afternoon for other professionals. And that’s been really great actually I mean for the parents for obvious reasons but other professionals come and, you know, take some inspiration from what is possible when you have a good admin at your school. And they go back and they probe at their own schools like look this is possible, and you’ve got the financial numbers to demonstrate the school doesn’t lose money when doing this it’s actually creating a benefit. So, they get to go back and say well why, why are we not doing this at our school too, which we know how important that is. I mean, you have to do this yourself setting up a program not totally dissimilar to this yourself it’s. it has to make money. It’s, you know, no brainer, but it’s, yeah, the families are feeding back positively and the numbers are good. And we’re looking at ways to extend it in the future. So, so far, so good. 

Lori: That’s great. Have you had any of those teachers or admin from other schools that have gone back to their schools and said, we need this. Have you had anyone reach out yet? Any? 

Max: Had two. So we’re in early stage conversations to see if that’s gonna be realistic. There’s still lots of criteria that needs to be in place. Our biggest fear is that we’re asked to do it to solve an immediate problem, not that it’s a long -term change for the school to be truly inclusive all the way through. You know, as well as I do, you do find these pockets of learners in high school that there’s like two or three that don’t fit. and school struggle to find something for them. And whilst we’d love to be able to help that, it’s not sustainable to do it just for that group. So as long as we can have that sort of conversation with the school, that also doesn’t happen overnight, and have an on -site business of some description, because I think that’s important too, then these sort of two elements are where if we can agree on those things, then we’re really happy to discuss setting up more of them. We see it as a really win -win partnership. 

The learners get what they need at the age that they need it, the teachers get the support that they need, and everyone focuses on their area of expertise, just like our team are not specialists in literacy, numeracy, and any of those academic subjects. 

The team from the learning hub at the school do a really great job of that, but then they spend half of their time perhaps with us doing the other skills that they need too. So it’s very much a win -win, I think. 

Lori: That’s great. We talked a little bit about sustainability. So how do you ensure there’s enough learners in your program to keep it all sustainable? 

Max: Good question. So we do do open house twice a year. This helps. Steps also outside of the school runs a monthly community meetup for parents and caregivers. So whilst we’re not directly plugging this in everywhere, it’s just spaces that we’re in that we are sort of trusted members of where we can talk about our experiences. I think there is nothing else in Thailand at the moment that does this. So word of mouth spreads quickly. But as I mentioned, the school has been really strong inclusion wise in primary always. So that is, we know that in year three, four, five, six. there’s this many kids already, so we know that they will be coming through, so we’re able to plan resources quite well for each coming academic year. Yeah, it’s really the first time I ever saw also a school willing to create timetables like this that would traditionally be caught too difficult or you know it’s too complicated to organize that. And we genuinely have young people really doing a mix of, you know, both exams and qualifications and work experience and everything in between. And you see how fulfilling that is for them, but it’s not just one path or, you know, you can only do this thing and only feel good about yourself some of the time they get to have a balance of all. and we were talking about this just before we started the podcast, right, the importance identity -wise for neurodivergent and or kids who identify as disabled to have connections with their own people as well as the masking and the work they have to do so often to fit in is exhausting and we have all the data now to show that that’s really, really damaging, especially for girls and we see that them having this safe space so they can come to the training centre any time of the day and they often opt to spend breaks and lunch times there and it’s their choice, you know, inclusion also should be that, right, it’s not forced on you, like we’ve said you can be in the canteen at lunch and you should be in the canteen at lunch because look, we did a good job as adults. You should go where is best for you during that period. So, yeah, we see this really nice social element of the program where the learners have friends for the first time and are making connections and doing things together outside of school too, which as we know is just as meaningful as everything that’s happening in the school as well. 

Lori: Yeah, you have any examples of that? 

Max: You’re going to make me share my emotions. Yeah, so my son just turned 16, and for the first time ever he had a birthday party with actual friends there, not our adult friends that we invite. And it was, yeah, it was really, really special, like they all really wanted to be there. And my wife and I just stood there like, 

wow, there’s 12 neurodivergent kids here. And we didn’t think we’d ever be stood there doing that, to be honest. He’s always, always found friendships hard. And this was very genuine. So it was, yeah, it was very, very, yeah, it was the emotional day for us about two weeks ago. So yeah, it’s great. 

Lori: Yes, it is great. I wanna circle back to just how the program started. I mean, you must, besides your friendship with the former head of support services or whatever the name of that was, how were you able to get the ear of the administration? And what kind of, what qualities of an administrator? Like, what did the, I guess, what did the administrator see that maybe others might not see a vision or? 

Max: Yeah, that’s a good question. So we, in the time we’ve been working together, there’s been two heads of school. The first person who was the one who had to sign off in principle before it went up to regional office because they’re part of Cognita. So, So we have we had many steps of approval to go through. I think from the first conversations with the head of school. I mean he just treated this very black and white like we have kids, they need access to the right program, you’re going to provide it, and we’re not going to lose money. It’s simple like that. And then we got into all the details of how and where and when and you know criteria and training and then agree. The only way to really know is to pilot it. So there was already a group of 

for young people there who needed this. So we did it with them first and it just, you know, it was so obvious within the first half term that this was just going to be something that would grow much more beyond that school. started to then have those conversations and us too with Cognito from Singapore. And yeah, they were totally behind it too. It now sort of sits as a model for them. So there’s been conversations of other schools in their network to see if we can replicate that. But like, you know, with anything in the early stages, it took key people to really get behind it. It is a lot of work, like it wasn’t, you know, the typical systems and processes. Having 18 to 21 year olds on campus creates new safeguarding protocols that we’d never had to think about before. We know lots of schools occasionally have kids who age out a little bit, but not to the age of 21. 

So we’ve been working with those those young people to write the new protocols for safeguarding together because they’re in a funny area of being sort of, they’re not students anymore. They’re adults, but they are in school campus so they are in a mentorship role, which creates some some new things but yeah, it was, you know, the original head of inclusion just advocated for it all the time everywhere she went and that sort of lead back to what we were talking about earlier this whole holistic ecosystem that had to be in place for it to be successful. And I, you know, that’s really not from from step side that’s from from them pushing that all the time. And this academic year we have a new head of inclusion and a new head of school, the head of school used to be a Senco. Uh, so that’s, you know, the conversations start at a totally different level of, okay, what’s the five year plan? Where do we see, where do we want this to be? The full commitment is there. So it will only, it will only grow now. Um, and the new head of inclusion said something, uh, very nice to me. She said, um, I feel so fortunate to get to work somewhere where inclusion is really a priority and is done well. And yet we still focus on improving it all the time. It was that honest, like commitment of we’re great, but we can still be better. So let’s keep going. Um, so yeah, now it becomes a, an recruitment thing too. People will seek out to work there because there is this really unique opportunity to be part of something. 

Um, so yeah, it’s seeing these, these other benefits come forward now. And it, and for me, it’s interesting because, you know, most of our work is with employers actually. 

And the benefits the school is starting to see are very similar to what employers start to see when they do inclusion properly. And the final stage for St Andrews which they’re committed to is they will also work with us to become an inclusive employer. So the school will start to hire. 

And of course within the teaching team there will be a percentage already of people who have disclosed any of their differences, but this will be more of a focus recruitment approach that we will now actively have policies and systems in place to be seeking out a truly diverse and inclusive staff and administration body as well. So we go full circle, which is awesome. Wow. 

If you can imagine, I’ve got like fireworks shooting off over my head right now. I’m like, ah, why are all ours go like this? But, you know, small steps. 

Lori: Exactly, small steps. 

Max: STEPS is what it is. Our research center is capturing a lot of this as we go, so we will be publishing the whys, like what has made this successful, what was critical, what didn’t work as well. So that other people can learn from it too. And I think that’s important. We’ve had the opportunity to trial a range of tools that we’ve been adapting so that they’re more accessible. So we are measuring things like work readiness, life skills and self -esteem from existing 

psychometric tools that are already out there but are really, really not accessible for the people that they are designed to be. So this is also cool because this is really helping for the first time for there to be data from non high functioning people having the opportunity to self assess and feedback and have their voice leading the development of the program as it goes forward. And that’s really, really important to us too. So lots more exciting things to come from this program. 

Lori: Yes. Well, one more exciting thing is that you’ll be presenting this very information. 

at a future SENIA Thailand event. Now you used to be the chairperson of SENIA Thailand. 

You stepped down from that recently, but. 

Max: More, much better hands than me. So Haley has taken over and is doing a really great job giving the attention and all the networking that she’s doing to get SENIA Thailand back to sort of pre -COVID times. We always used to be one of the more active, bigger chapters, right? So one of those things is on the 26th of January, St. Andrew’s 107 will host the Bangkok Councillors Group, which is around 150 councillors that come together twice a year. So we’re teaming up with them, or SENIA Thailand is teaming up with them to run a collaborative event. And I will be speaking in the morning about this partnership and about our research. 

And then there’ll be other presentations throughout the day as well. So it’s looks to be a really exciting event and it just started to be advertised. So we will that’s out on SENIA Thailand’s Facebook page already and we will be sharing it with Laurie so it can go in other senior media too. 

Lori: Perfect. Yes. Look, look for that in our upcoming events in our newsletter and then also on our web page. So one more exciting event for you is you’ll be speaking at our live in -person conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam from March 1st through the 3rd. What will your topic of your presentation be? 

Max: So I will be co -presenting with our head of education about ways to build awareness around accommodations into the classroom. This is really through our experience of working with employers and seeing how often not only employers have no idea what to do, but the employee themselves doesn’t know what they need or doesn’t know how to advocate for it. So we’re really trying to build that into the classroom so that it helps. It really is one of the biggest barriers to employment. So we’re trying to overcome that by sharing our learnings with teachers to help bridge the gap a little bit as they move into employment. So yeah, super excited to talk about it. It’s one of my passion topics. and we share about a partnership we had with Ikea to set some of this up too. So it should be really cool. Please join the conference. 

Lori: Yes, well, already we’ve had tons of people sign up. So if you’re planning on going, make sure you sign up soon before tickets run out. So Max, I think that’s all we have time for today. But as always, thank you for all you do. On behalf of a mom of a kiddo, I appreciate your work, but just also as an educator and as an inclusion advocate myself. Thank you. 

Max: Right back at you. Love everything SENIA’s doing. Love that I get to be a part of it in a small way. And yeah, getting this opportunity to collaborate and share is awesome. So thank you for having me. 

Lori: Well, we’ll see you in Vietnam. 

Max: You will. Thank you. 

Lori: Take care. 

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Thank you for joining us for today’s show. For more information, including how to subscribe and show notes, please head to our website. That’s seniainternational.org/podcasts. Until next time, cheers.