Why autism has become a preference for employers

Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because each autistic person is different, with unique strengths and challenges.

Varney says many people with autism have experienced education as a system focused on those challenges, which can include social difficulties and anxiety.

Many children with autism have found education focused on their deficits rather than their strengths.Credit:Rodger Cummins

Fortunately, that is changing, with recent reforms embracing the strengths of students with autism.

But the unemployment rate of people with autism remains worrying. ABS data from 2018 shows that 34.1% of people with autism are unemployed, three times more than people with any type of disability and nearly eight times more than people without disabilities.

“Most of the time people hear someone has autism and they assume the incompetence,” says Varney, who was appointed chairman of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council this week.

“But we have unique strengths, in particular hyper-focus, great creativity, and we can think outside the box, which is a big plus in the workplace.”

In Israel, the defense force has a specialized intelligence unit made up exclusively of autistic soldiers, whose skills are deployed in the analysis, interpretation and understanding of images and satellite maps.

Locally, organizations actively recruiting autistic talent include software giant SAP, Westpac, IBM, ANZ, the Australian Tax Office, Telstra, NAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Chris Pedron is a junior data analyst at Australian Spatial Analytics, a social enterprise that states on its website “neurodiversity is our advantage – our team is simply faster and more accurate at processing data”.

He was hired after an informal conversation. (Australian Spatial Analytics also often provides interview questions 48 hours in advance.)

Pedron says the traditional recruiting process can work against people with autism because there are a lot of unwritten social cues, like body language, that it doesn’t always pick up.

Australian Spatial Analytics founder Geoff Smith (right) with data analyst Chris Pedron.

Australian Spatial Analytics founder Geoff Smith (right) with data analyst Chris Pedron.Credit:Glenn Hunt

“If I walk in and act a little physically, have my arms crossed or something, it’s not that I don’t want to be there, it’s just that the new social interaction is something something that causes anxiety.”

Pedron also finds eye contact uncomfortable and has had to train over the years to focus on a point on someone’s face.

Australian Spatial Analytics is addressing a skills shortage by providing a range of data services that have traditionally been outsourced overseas.

Projects include digital agricultural maps for the grazing industry, technical documentation for large infrastructure, and map creation for land administration.

Pedron has always found it easy to plot things in his head. “A lot of the work done here at ASA is geospatial, so having autistic people with a very visual mindset is really a plus for this particular job.”

Pedron listens to music on headphones at the office, which helps him focus and keeps him from getting 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 expected of me, the better.”

Australian Spatial Analytics is one of three employment-focused social enterprises launched by Queensland charity White Box Enterprises.

It grew from three to 80 staff in 18 months and – thanks to philanthropist Naomi Milgrom, who provided office space in Cremorne – expanded to Melbourne this year, allowing Australian Spatial Analytics to create 50 positions for Victorians in end of the year. .

Chief executive Geoff Smith hopes they are at the forefront of a wave of employers recognizing that hiring people with autism can make good business sense.

In 2017, IBM launched a campaign to hire more neurodiverse people.

In 2017, IBM launched a campaign to hire more neurodiverse people.Credit:PA

“Rather than focusing on the person’s deficits, focus on their strengths. A quarter of National Disability Insurance Scheme plans name autism as the main disability, so society has no choice – there will be so many autistic people young and looking for work. There is a skills shortage in the state, so you need to look into 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).

The initiative was partly inspired by software engineering and data quality services firm Ultranauts, which bragged at an event “they ate IBM’s lunch during testing using a staff fully autistic”.

The following year, Belinda Sheehan, a senior management consultant at IBM, was tasked with rolling out a pilot at its client innovation center in Ballarat.

“IBM is very committed to inclusiveness,” says Sheehan. “And if we don’t have diversity of thought, we won’t have innovation. So those two things go hand in hand.

Eight things workplaces can do for employees with autism

  • Recruit differently. Send candidates interview questions ahead of time or use work trials and practice assessments
  • Offer flexible hours
  • Provide noise canceling headphones and quiet spaces
  • Give clear and direct instructions and feedback
  • Have mentors or a buddy system
  • Don’t make assumptions about people with autism
  • Provide managers with autism training
  • Partner with Autism Employment Experts

Sheehan worked with Specialisterne Australia, a social enterprise that helps companies recruit and support people with autism, to find talent using 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 connect with customers when the brick-and-mortar store was closed due to COVID.

Ten employees were ultimately selected. They started in July 2019 and work in roles at IBM including data analytics, testing, user experience design, data engineering, automation, blockchain, and software development. software. Eight other employees were hired in July 2021.

Sheehan says customers have been thrilled with their ideas. “User experience [user experience] designer, for example, comes up with such a different goal. Especially when it comes to artificial intelligence, you need these different thinkers.

One client said that 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 sought to make the office more inclusive by creating calming, low-sensory spaces.

He formed a business resource group for neurodiverse employees and their allies, with four teams focused on recruitment, outreach, career advancement, and policies and procedures.

And he hired a neurodiversity coach to work with individuals and managers.

Sheehan says the challenges have included some employees frustrated because they didn’t have enough work.

“These people want to come to work and get the job done – they’re not going to have coffee and chat.”

Increasing productivity is a good thing to have, Sheehan says, but as a manager she needs to find ways to improve their skills during their downtime.

There have also been challenges around different communication styles, with staff finding some autistic employees a bit blunt.


Sheehan encourages all staff to take a Neurodiversity 101 training course hosted by IBM.

“Something can be perceived as gross, but we have to turn it into a positive. It’s nice to have someone who is direct, at least we all know what that person is thinking.

Chris Varney is excited to see neurodiversity programs in certain industries, but points out that each autistic person has different interests and abilities.

Some are nonverbal, for example, and not all have the stereotypical autism skills that make them excel at analyzing data.

“We’ve seen a lot of recognition that people with autism are an asset to banks and IT companies, but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” says Varney.

“We need to see jobs for a wide range of people with autism.”

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