ARTICLE: The jobless stat that no one is talking about (The Citizen, Sep 2015)

The jobless stat that no one is talking about (Original article posted at The Citizen)

By Danielle Kutchel

“The majority of people, of young adults I’ve met on the spectrum, are not in full time employed work…”

Max Williams isn’t far off the money.

The employment rate for people like Mr Williams— that is, people on the autism spectrum — is consistently low. The most recent official data taken in 2012 found that the labour force participation rate for those on the spectrum — that is, the percentage of those in work or actively looking for work — was 42 per cent. This was lower than the 83 per cent participation rate for people without a disability, and lower even than the 53 per cent participation rate for those with disabilities generally.

Other sources have done the research and come up with similar statistics. Released in 2012, Autism Spectrum Australia’s ‘We Belong’ report interviewed adults with high functioning autism or Asperger’s, and concluded that many struggled to find fulfilling employment. Sixty-seven per cent of respondents indicated that they needed support to find a job, while just 54 per cent were in paid employment at the time of the survey.

The reasons for the low employment rate of those on the autism spectrum are not easily defined. ASD is not necessarily immediately obvious to the eye, so outwardly, these people appear “normal” — that is, they have no obvious physical handicaps. However, there may be mild to severe mental or intellectual impairments, including difficulty with social, emotional and communication skills.

But autism has its benefits too, and companies are beginning to see how these benefits can enhance their businesses. Employers have praised their recruits’ work ethic and efficiency, their loyalty to the company, and their dedication to their roles.

Earlier this year, in the US, Microsoft announced a pilot program to hire people with autism for full-time roles. The announcement highlighted the strengths and diversity that people with autism can bring to the workplace.

Here in Australia, other companies both small and large are beginning to follow suit, presenting further opportunities for people like Mr Williams.

But how much are things actually changing for people with autism who want to enter the workforce — and are the changes tokenistic or a meaningful societal acceptance of the benefits that these people can bring to the workforce?


Max’s story

Max Williams is a thoughtful, well-spoken young man. He has plenty to say, and the ability to put that into words — as evidenced by the popularity of his blog. He also has autism and suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. There is no reason, he says, why he and others like him couldn’t be in paid work — besides employer reluctance and a lack of understanding of autism.

“I know plenty of people [who] are unemployed that have incredible skills,” he said.

He believes he knows why some employers might be reluctant to take a chance on an autistic recruit like himself.

In the past, he has found it difficult to get through traditional eight or
nine-hour shifts without having a panic attack. He works more efficiently and effectively in shorter stints— a practice that most workplaces don’t accommodate.

While he continues to seek paid employment, Mr Williams is filling his days with volunteer roles to build his CV. One of the reasons he began volunteering was to assuage his conscience — “I thought, ‘God, I don’t want to be a dole bludger. I don’t want to be sitting around doing nothing while other people work really hard and I get money for nothing’.”

He believes that others on the spectrum share his feelings.

“I think there is a lot of that stigma [dole bludging] but there’s also a lot of issues with self-esteem, and feeling like they’re just a burden is very common in people on the spectrum, at least from what I’ve gathered from doing a lot of reading on the blogosphere and from a lot of people on the spectrum that I know.

“For me, volunteer work really helped alleviate that.”

Mr Williams is confident that he will find paid work in the future. He has some suggestions for employers that will make the workplace a little bit easier for people on the autism spectrum.

Lachlan’s story

Like Max Williams, 18-year-old Lachlan Scouler is playing a waiting game. He has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his dream is to one day work in a
media-related field.

Ultimately, he is keen for work in an area related to his interests in film-making and creative writing. While he waits to finish school though, he has been working on his people skills at Madcap Cafe.

Madcap is a social enterprise run by community support organisation Ermha. It consists of a chain of cafes that provide work experience opportunities for those facing barriers to employment, including people with a disability or mental illnesses.

“The purpose[s] of his placement at the cafe [were]…socialising with others, building his confidence and believing in himself. A mental health issue is not a barrier for him to achieve employment,” explained Farzad Mohseni, an employment specialist at Ermha and Lachlan’s consultant.

Madcap cafe manager Jemma Giddings said Lachlan’s skills and confidence had grown over the course of his work with Madcap.

“He’s very good at adapting to his surroundings. I was really surprised with his progress. He’s definitely got ambition, he’ll go far,” Ms Giddings said.

She said that while Lachlan was involved in all aspects of working in the cafe, from taking orders and making coffees to monitoring produce, working at Madcap involved much more.

“[It’s about working] in a customer service environment. People don’t necessarily want to be baristas or work in hospitality but there’s lots of skills that are transferrable.”

Ms Giddings said she focused on encouraging Lachlan to approach people and build a rapport with customers.

“One exercise I did do with Lachlan which started off being really difficult for him was we walked around the store with $1 off cards. We’d approach customers that were shopping…and ask them if they’d like a $1 off card. And that’s really daunting…it’s like cold calling.

“That really brought him out because then when they did come to use their $1 off card…he already had that rapport. I was really impressed, constantly, by Lachlan.

“[He can go] anywhere he wants. He’s got the personality, he’s very wise for someone that young. I think he will be a specialist in something, a specialist in his field. He’s got a lot to say.”

Lachlan is confident that the skills he has acquired at Madcap will be useful in the future.

“I think it will be pretty beneficial. Everything comes useful at one point, every skill you learn. You’re always going to meet people who want coffee!” he laughed.

But working at Madcap wasn’t without its challenges.

“Things like just establishing a relationship with people or even trying to communicate with people…I always go for the indirect path like an email or text or something. I guess it sort of holds me back, because I also have a bit of anxiety as well,” he added.

Besides his work at Madcap, Lachlan has volunteered in other businesses, developing skills that he can apply to a future role. He believes that volunteering is one of the most useful things a person can do while looking for paid employment.

“It’s all practice, it all is beneficial. Everything helps.”

In reference to his Asperger’s, Lachlan says that while his is only a “pretty mild case,” he tries to minimise the “burden” he will place on his employer. “I try to make certain things irrelevant…I guess I try to maybe hide it from people.”

Madcap, according to cafe manager Jemma Giddings, is a necessity, providing people with a sense of confidence and the skills they need to get ahead in the world.

“Having a job is all about having self worth and getting up and doing something and feeling relevant. That’s exactly what Madcap is. It’s not even about the cafe, it’s not about learning coffee, it’s about teaching people about having responsibilities and letting [them] know that they can do a lot.”

Affecting change

“It’s often the people who have high functioning autism or Asperger’s Syndrome that fall through the cracks…they can be quite highly skilled, quite highly intelligent and have a bit more of a hidden disability.”

So says Vicky Little, employment co-ordinator of Aspect Capable at Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect). She assists those on the spectrum who are looking for a job to find employment, making sure that the potential employer provides a supportive environment that meets the needs of the employee, and knows
“The biggest barriers faced by job seekers on the spectrum [are]the lack of understanding from employers, lack of understanding of their autism, as well as difficulties with the individual’s communication and selling themselves in an interview, and that tough competition in the recruitment process.”

She continued: “Communication may not be a strong point for all employees on the spectrum. For example, often an interview is not a fair assessment of a candidate’s ability to do a job, because it’s essentially an assessment of their communication.”

Aspect Capable often works with interview panels to tailor questions that will draw out a better understanding of the candidate. In some cases a representative from Aspect will attend the job interview as well, and provide the candidate with feedback on their performance.

Ms Little said job trials could sometimes be a better measure of a candidate’s abilities than interviews, giving them an opportunity to show their practical skills. This would also help employers to consider how to work with the candidate — what assistance they might need, how they learn best and how to adjust communication strategies to get the most out of the employee.

Ms Little’s involvement in the employment process doesn’t end at the interview stage. Following engagement, the team at Aspect provides employers with practical advice, adjustments and strategies to support the new employee. Regular breaks, visual documents charting processes, written instructions and the availability of a quiet workstation are some of the most common suggestions that Ms Little gives to help employees with autism to perform at their best in the workplace.

Aspect Capable also runs a series of workshops for employees, or those seeking employment or work experience, such as Max Williams and Lachlan Scouler, to develop skills that will help them succeed in their roles. Organisational, communication and assertiveness skills are covered, as well as how to deal with stress and anxiety in the workplace.

She believes the most crucial thing for any employer to remember is that each person on the spectrum is different.

“Once you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum. Every employee is different and offers different strengths.”

“In saying that, there are some common strengths that we can see which include a meticulous attention to detail, accuracy, [they] often have strong numerical and problem solving skills, some people have very strong analytical skills and research skills. What we do see which is very common is an enjoyment…in routine and repetitive tasks,” Ms Little said.


An employer’s perspective

Joel Gregory, general manager of civil engineering software company 12d Solutions, is one business person who can vouch for what Ms Little has said. About three years ago, his company employed a young man on the autism spectrum for an administrative role.

“He manages our database, he answers our phones, lots of our logistics, a lot of our shipping,” Mr Gregory said of the employee, who asked not to be named.

He said that neither 12d nor their employee have looked back.

“At the beginning, he was quite nervous because there was a probation period…I think for that first three months he was certainly on edge and quite anxious as most people would [be]. We got over that period and passed that probation period with flying colours.”

The company didn’t set out to hire a person with autism. But after speaking with Ms Little at Aspect Capable, the company’s managers realised that they had an opening in their business that could be filled by someone on the spectrum.

Ms Little put forward a candidate and assisted Mr Gregory in developing an interview process that would give the candidate a fair assessment of his skills.

Once the candidate was recruited, Ms Little remained in contact to provide training to all staff on what to expect from the new employee and assist with any questions they might have about Asperger’s and the autism spectrum.

The business has made a few changes to the way it works to help adapt to the employee’s way of learning and absorbing information. Flow charts have been particularly useful for conveying processes and large blocks of written information and have led to the employee’s error rate disappearing.

“He [is] able to hit his [key performance indicators]— smash them out of the water actually,” Mr Gregory said.

“His biggest strengths would be his dedication, his motivation, punctuality. He gets here nine o’clock on the dot even though he travels by far the furthest to get here.

“The tasks that he has, he gives 110 per cent…My biggest criticism a lot of the time is just…slow down, it’s OK, it’s still going to be there tomorrow!” said Mr Gregory.

He recommends that other businesses that may be considering hiring an employee with Asperger’s or autism do their research and work out where the employee would fit in the business.

“That’s the real key, finding that role. The end game is going to be less staff turnover, higher morale and high efficiency, more productivity.

“Armed with a bit of knowledge, these people can really add to your business,” he added.

He said previous negative stereotypes and media coverage could hold some potential employers back from what could be a good business decision.

“The more you find out about [autism], the more you can see the benefits. There’s so much negativity out there, it’s really good to do the research, especially on the higher functioning, Asperger’s group. The payoffs that you can have from increased productivity…reduced staff turnover and just having loyal, honest, dedicated staff, that’s all you want from your employees at the end of the day. If you find the right fit, it will be great,” Mr Gregory said.


The future of work for people with autism

The future of work for people with autism appears to be looking up, as more organisations recognise the benefits of employing those on the spectrum.

Change is also coming from a higher level, with the Department of Social Services currently undertaking a review of the disability employment system. The findings are expected to contribute to the development of a National Disability Employment Framework, to assist people with a disability to enter the workforce.

A spokesperson for the Department said in a statement: “The taskforce will consult with and consider different cohorts of people with disability and whether they require different strategies and approaches to help them improve employment outcomes.

“The taskforce has recently finished the first round of its national consultation and is currently analysing feedback and submissions from a range of stakeholders to inform the direction of the new Disability Employment Framework.”

From this, a discussion paper will be developed prior to a second round of consultations.

“People with [autism spectrum disorder] and their families are encouraged to actively participate in this second round of the consultations, as they did in the first,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Aspect employment co-ordinator Vicky Little said she is seeing employers reach out to Aspect Capable to find workers on the spectrum, having “heard of the skills and strengths that they can offer the workplace.”

“We have an untapped talent pool of individuals ready and eager to work and we just need employers to work with us to create those opportunities.”

“It’s without a doubt really that we’re seeing an increase in job seekers with autism. There’s a large population of children who were diagnosed fifteen, twenty years ago, who are now becoming adults and moving into the world of employment,” she explained.

“Similarly, in the last couple of years we’ve seen employers who have been a bit more proactive in creating opportunities for people on the autism spectrum, like Hewlett Packard and SAP, Microsoft and a few other organisations on an international level. In Australia…we’re imploring that employers do start to consider taking on people with autism.”

She added that understanding of autism was key to ensuring a successful working partnership between employees and employers.

“Taking time to understand the contribution people with autism can make to the workplace…will give employers more confidence in giving people a go. I think, overall, if organisations give people with autism that opportunity to demonstrate their skills, our society will not only see a positive impact on our workplaces but on our overall way of thinking.

“We have so much to learn from the way people with autism think and work, we just have to give them an opportunity to teach us. There’s a lot to be gained by everybody understanding the strengths that people with autism can offer and giving them a go.”

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