Why autism has become an employer preference
Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because every autistic person is different, with unique strengths and challenges.
Varney says many autistic people experienced education as a system that focused on those challenges, which can include social difficulties and anxiety.
He is pleased that this is changing as recent reforms recognize the strengths of autistic students.
But the unemployment rate for autistic people remains worryingly high. ABS data from 2018 shows that 34.1 percent of autistic people are unemployed – three times that of people with any type of disability and almost eight times that of those without disabilities.
“Often people hear that someone is autistic and assume they are disabled,” says Varney, who was appointed Chair of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council this week.
“But we have unique strengths, particularly hyper focus, great creativity, and we can think outside the box, which is a huge advantage in the workplace.”
In Israel, the Defense Force has a specialized intelligence unit consists exclusively of autistic soldiers whose skills are used in the analysis, interpretation and understanding of satellite images and maps.
Local organizations actively recruiting autistic talent include software giant SAP, Westpac, IBM, ANZ, the Australian Inland Revenue, Telstra, NAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Chris Pedron is a Junior Data Analyst at Australian spatial analysisa social enterprise that says on its website: “Neurodiversity is our advantage – our team is just faster and more accurate at data processing”.
He was hired after an informal interview. (Australian Spatial Analytics often makes interview questions available 48 hours in advance.)
Pedron says the traditional recruitment process can work against autistic people because there are many unwritten social cues, such as body language, that he doesn’t always pick up on.
“If I walk in and I’m acting a little bit physically distant, with my arms crossed or something, it’s not that I don’t want to be there, it’s just that new social interactions are something that causes anxiety.”
Pedron also finds eye contact uncomfortable and has had to train himself to focus on one point on a person’s face over the years.
Australian Spatial Analytics addresses a skills shortage by providing a range of data services that have traditionally been outsourced offshore.
Projects include digital farm maps for pastoralism, technical documentation for large infrastructure and mapping for land management.
Pedron has always found it easy to plan things out in his head. “A lot of the work done here at ASA is geospatial, so having autistic people with a very visual mindset is very beneficial for this particular job.”
Pedron listens to music on headphones in the office, which helps him focus and not get distracted. He says the simpler and clearer the instructions, the easier it is for him to understand. “The less I have to read between the lines to understand what is being asked of me, the better.”
Australian Spatial Analytics is one of three employment-focused social enterprises founded by Queensland charity White Box Enterprises.
It has grown from three to 80 employees in 18 months and – thanks to philanthropist Naomi Milgrom, who provided office space in Cremorne – has expanded to Melbourne this year, enabling Australian Spatial Analytics to create 50 Victorian jobs by the end of the year.
Chief Executive Geoff Smith hopes they are at the forefront of a wave of employers who recognize that hiring people with autism can make good business sense.
“Instead of focusing on the person’s deficiencies, focus on the strengths. A quarter of the National Disability Insurance Scheme’s plans list autism as a primary disability, leaving society with no choice – there will be such a large number of people who are young and looking for jobs who are autistic. There is a skills shortage anyway, so you need to look at neurodiverse talent.”
In 2017, IBM launched a campaign to hire more neurodiverse candidates (a term that covers a range of conditions including autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and dyslexia).
That Initiative was partly inspired by software and data quality engineering services company Ultranauts, which boasted at an event “that IBM had lunch with purely autistic personnel while testing.”
The following year, Belinda Sheehan, a senior managing consultant at IBM, was tasked with launching a pilot at their customer innovation center in Ballarat.
“IBM is a strong believer in inclusion,” says Sheehan. “And if we don’t have diversity of thought, we won’t have innovation. So these two things go hand in hand.”
Eight things workplaces can do for autistic employees
- Recruit differently. Ask applicants interview questions in advance or use work samples and practical tests
- Offer flexible working hours
- Provide noise-cancelling headphones and quiet places
- Provide clear and direct instructions and feedback
- Do you have mentors or a buddy system
- Don’t make assumptions about autistic people
- Offer autism training to managers
- Work with autism employment experts
Sheehan collaborated Specialists Australiaa social enterprise that helps companies recruit and support autistic people to find talent through a non-traditional recruitment process that included a week-long assignment.
The contestants were asked to work together to find a way for a record store to engage with customers when the brick-and-mortar store was closed due to COVID.
Finally, ten employees were selected. They started in July 2019 and work in roles at IBM including data analysis, testing, user experience design, data engineering, automation, blockchain and software development. A further eight employees were hired in July 2021.
According to Sheehan, customers loved their ideas. “The UX [user experience] Designer, for example, comes up with such a different lens. Especially when it comes to artificial intelligence, you need these different thinkers.”
One client said if he had to describe the most valuable contribution to the project in two words, it would be “ridiculous speed.” Another said: “Automation genius.”
IBM has attempted to make the office more inclusive by creating soothing, sensory spaces.
It has formed a Business Resource Group for neurodiverse employees and their allies, with four teams focused on recruitment, awareness, career advancement, and policies and procedures.
And it has hired a neurodiversity coach to work with individuals and managers.
Sheehan says some employees felt frustrated because they didn’t have enough work.
“These people want to come to work and get the job done — they don’t go for coffee and chat.”
Increased productivity is a good concern, Sheehan says, but as a manager, she needs to find ways to hone her skills in her downtime.
There were also difficulties related to different communication styles, with staff finding some autistic staff to be a bit blunt.
Sheehan encourages all employees to take a Neurodiversity 101 training course conducted by IBM.
“Something may come off as rude, but we need to turn that around in a positive way. It’s good to have someone direct, at least we all know what that person is thinking.”
Chris Varney welcomes neurodiversity programs in some industries, but cautions that every autistic person has different interests and abilities.
For example, some are non-verbal and not all have the stereotypical autism skills that they highlight when analyzing data.
“We’ve seen a great realization that autistic people are an asset to banks and IT companies, but there’s still work to be done,” says Varney.
“We need to see jobs for a broad spectrum of autistic people.”
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