It’s time to rethink the value of autism in the workplace

Friday, 23 March 2018

There are major problems with the way society views disability, and as long as those views prevail we will never truly see progress, says EPIC Assist CEO Bill Gamack.

“When you really get to the core of it, society has starkly different expectations for people with disability compared to people without disability. People with disability generally aren’t expected to achieve highly, particularly in the area of employment and building a career,” said Mr Gamack, who has been at the helm of the not-for-profit disability employment organisation for almost four years.

“This subject of low expectations is an unfortunate truth and something people struggle to discuss. But without first acknowledging this, we can never expect to tackle it.”

Not intent on simply outlining social issues without taking action, EPIC Assist has joined forces with Danish company Specialisterne as they branch into Australia. Specialisterne focuses on finding sustainable employment for people on the Autism Spectrum, and has named EPIC Assist their first Network Partner in Australia.

“We’re serious about getting people on the spectrum into the workforce. With less than 30 per cent of people on the spectrum engaged in full-time work, this needs serious attention now,” said Specialisterne Australia Chairman John Craven.

“The number of people on the spectrum in Australia appears to be on the rise. Whether this is an actual increase or just more people being diagnosed, we don’t know. What we do know is that people on the spectrum have a lot to offer to prospective employers and workplaces, and the fact that there are so few in employment is unacceptable.”

The skills and attributes of people on the spectrum have been in the spotlight lately in the form of a new autism pilot project called Autism and Agriculture. The project has seen EPIC Assist, Specialisterne and Autism CRC collaborate with SunPork Farms to support people with autism as they commence new careers at SunPork Farms.

Zach Zaborny is a young man on the autism spectrum who understands firsthand the employment struggles faced by people with disability. He has found a supportive employer in EPIC Assist and is thriving in his role, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing to reach this point.

“Seeking work hasn’t always been easy. In the past I have struggled with support from employers and getting them to understand how I really like tasks and structure,” said Zach.

“The very low percentage of people on the spectrum in work is definitely concerning. You have a potential workforce of entirely capable individuals who are being overlooked because they don’t meet the expectations of how an employee should be.”

Zach points to interviews and social interactions as two common areas where people on the spectrum typically struggle.

“Someone on the spectrum might be perfectly qualified for a role but struggle in an interview setting. We have certain ideas about how someone should answer an interview question, and if they don’t answer in that manner, they don’t get the job.”

Mr Craven agrees that the key to change lies in education and changing age-old mindsets, which will lead to greater disability confidence and action across the board.

“We need to develop workplace processes that harness the autistic attributes, not fight against them. We know people on the spectrum struggle to cope with standard hiring practices and are therefore unsuccessful in finding work. It’s a vicious cycle,” said Mr Craven.

“It’s about educating employers about what to expect and supporting them by adjusting hiring practices and putting in place strong training and support,” said Mr Craven.

“We also need resources available for co-workers, so they can better understand the behaviours and needs of people on the spectrum.”

“We then find the talent, correctly assess their needs and identify suitable roles for them. Providing ongoing support to the person is also key- the job doesn’t just stop at hiring.”

EPIC Assist and Specialisterne will be collaborating on developing further employment projects incorporating people on the autism spectrum throughout 2017.