Group of workers having a stand up meeting
31 Mar

The neurodiverse workforce

The important topic of the employment of autistic adults has been making news headlines more frequently in recent years. We hear about the shocking rates of unemployment of adults on the autism spectrum. In 2015 the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the unemployment rate for people on the autism spectrum was 40.8%, more than three times the rate for people with disability (10.0%) and almost six times the rate of people without disability (5.3%). It’s clear there are significant barriers to employment for those on the autism spectrum, one of which is the traditional, antiquated recruitment method. We know the interview is not a fair assessment of the capabilities of jobseekers on the autism spectrum. After all, isn’t an interview simply an assessment of communication skills? By definition autistic adults may communicate and interact differently than their ‘neurotypical’ counterparts. These traditional recruitment methods are often biased towards individuals with well-developed interpersonal and communication skills, as a result many talented autistic individuals remain unemployed or underemployed.

Founded in 2004 in Denmark Specialisterne (The Specialists) aims to break down these barriers by transforming the traditional recruitment process by providing customised recruitment and assessment programs that focus on demonstrating the skills and capabilities of candidates on the autism spectrum and integrating them into meaningful roles within an understanding workplace. Individuals with autism, while often challenged by social and communication difficulties have many critical skills needed by companies of all sizes and offer a range of skills that can be of benefit to any job. These skills include (but are not limited to) attention to detail, superior pattern recognition, high diligence, perseverance and a low tolerance for mistakes. Despite the reluctance of some organisations to hire autistic employees (possibly due to a lack of understanding of the adult presentation of autism), employees on the spectrum will thrive given understanding and inclusion. Often few workplace adaptations are needed for an employee on the spectrum, and changes made to accommodate autistic employees (e.g., clear, consistent instructions) are commonly reported to be of benefit to all employees in the workplace. The benefits of the autistic workforce are being increasingly noticed by major companies seeking the untapped potential of people who are neurodiverse. Specialisterne is committed to helping more organisations understand the edge that neurodiversity brings to the workforce and help create pathways to access this untapped talent pool.

In 2014 Specialisterne expanded to Australia and since then has placed over 90 individuals into careers in IT, engineering and farming. Early last year a pilot program with SunPork Farms, Australia’s largest producer of pork, has seen over 5% of their farm based workforce being sourced from people on the autism spectrum. Other programs in software testing, cyber security and engineering have established long term careers for many uniquely talented people. Specialisterne works with internationally renowned companies including SAP, PWC, and Microsoft to expand programs globally and looking forward will be engaging with more diverse industries.

In 2017 Westpac partnered with Specialisterne to tap into neurodiverse talent. Through the Specialisterne “Tailored Talent” program, Westpac were able to create new pathways for candidates on the autism spectrum to integrate them into meaningful roles that aimed to fill skill gaps across their organisation. In October twelve candidates were assessed over three weeks through Specialisterne’s tailored program, a patient recruitment program consisting of onsite workshops, simulated work activities and practical work experiences. The program allowed Westpac to adapt their existing hiring process for people on the autism spectrum to create an opportunity to demonstrate and showcase their skills. With the program being offered onsite, the hiring managers could observe the candidates’ skills on the job, see how they work as part of a team, their job-readiness, motivation and participation. For the participants, this approach to recruitment provided them a unique opportunity to demonstrate their skills and motivation over an extended period of time through practical, hands-on tasks that are pertinent to Westpac. By avoiding the anxiety inducing interview the participants were able to take the time to become familiar with the workplace environment, learn important information about the organisation, the business units and the roles available whilst having hands-on experience.

At Specialisterne, we understand that the strengths and interests of autistic employees may align well with some, but not all parts, of traditional roles. Hence, allowing flexibility around aspects of a role may allow autistic employees to thrive by engaging in roles they both excel at and enjoy. Westpac took the approach of not advertising pre-determined roles but inviting a variety of candidates and then match them to roles that best suit their skills and capabilities. In doing so Westpac is in the process of placing up to 10 candidates to roles that suit their strengths and abilities across various business units, including risk, finance and IT. The ten successful candidates will commence their roles in February 2018 commencing on 12-month internships. However, Westpac don’t see this as a short-term contract, but rather have a view to extending and explore opportunities in other suitable roles across the business. Hopefully these employees will develop a career at Westpac.

Upon the commencement of the internship, the crucial component of the Specialisterne will work with Westpac staff to build capacity and understanding to support the autistic staff members going forward. At Specialisterne we will work with the managers and key members of staff to understand the unique strengths of their employee/s on the autism spectrum, and implement management strategies to help them thrive in the workplace. We will also train and support all support staff involved as part of the establishment of a strong internal support structure.

Westpac is the first of the big banks in Australia to employ this many employees on the autism spectrum as integrated members of staff with access to long-term opportunities within the company. Furthermore, the development of the internal support structure that will ensure long term sustainability of the program and will enable the company to continue to build an inclusive and neurodiverse workforce. Westpac’s approach recognises that employing autistic employees is not just a good thing to do, it makes good economic and business sense. Westpac have established themselves as global leaders in the employment of individuals on the autism spectrum and have set a commendable example for future organisations to follow suit.

Specialisterne’s global goal is to enable one million careers for people on the autism spectrum by 2025. With the increased understanding of neurodiverse talent and the value of the autistic workforce, we are hopeful Specialisterne will have new opportunities to create more meaningful careers for people on the autism spectrum in 2018.

Vicky Little
Employment Services Manager

You might be interested in