‘I never quite believed I would actually be employed’: Rise at DHHS is helping people with autism reach their potential — while improving agency performance

By David Donaldson

Wednesday March 4, 2020

Rise at DHHS participants.

An innovative recruitment program for people with autism opened up “life changing” new opportunities for employment and met a business need for accurate record keeping.

It’s a pretty startling statistic: the unemployment rate for autistic adults in Australia is over 30%.

This is around triple the rate of all people with a disability (10%) and six times the general population (5%).

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People with autism are also more likely to be in casual or temporary roles.

But an initiative in Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services is demonstrating how that gap can be narrowed.

Rise at DHHS aims to give participants the opportunity to undertake meaningful work and gain the skills and confidence to eventually be selected on merit for other roles within DHHS or other organisations.

The first wave of the program saw eight people with autism hired as records management officers in June 2017 through an alternative recruitment process.

Instead of the standard job interview, which can make it hard for people with autism to demonstrate their skills, the recruitment centred around a three-week training and assessment program.

It’s made a big difference in the lives of the participants. Rise at DHHS has provided work for a group of people who were mostly unemployment or in short-term roles beforehand, with one telling evaluators: “I never quite believed that I would actually be employed”.

Participants say it’s improved their mental and physical wellbeing, and allowed them to develop skills that will be useful in their career.

But the program has also met the business needs of the department.

The work involves the digitisation and indexing of paper records of human services clients — tasks that fit well with the skills of people with autism spectrum disorder.

“This was an essential task in the department’s records management strategy which needed to be done accurately because these records are sometimes crucial life histories for people who have been in institutional care,” says DHHS Chief Information Officer Steve Hodgkinson.

“The task was structured and repetitive — processing a mountain of boxes of paper records to index them in the TRIM records management system. It also required careful attention to detail and the ability to efficiently process and organise large amounts of data. It was well suited to the special abilities of people with ASD including hyper-focus and concentration.”

This has paid off for the department, notes Brian McInerney, manager for statewide services and storage:

“Staff with many years of experience have remarked that the Rise team make far fewer errors than were made by data entry operators in the past. The improvement in accuracy has been exponential. This means much less correction later.”

NSW is now introducing a similar program, which will recruit 15 people over the next few months.

The process

The program was created in partnership with the Australian arm of Specialisterne, a Danish foundation that aims to build employment opportunities for people with autism.

It worked in five stages, based on Specialisterne’s process.

The Specialisterne process.

Stage 1: Specialisterne representatives visited DHHS to learn about the positions to be filled. Information about the roles and work environment were given to applicants to ensure the most suitable candidates could be found.

Stage 2: To find applicants, the program reached out to autism associations, disability employment services, and university career centres to advertise the opportunity. Those interested completed an online survey with skills and an optional task similar to the requirements of the role. In one month, 52 applications were received for the eight positions.

Stage 3: Thirty applicants were invited to attend a half-day workshop. The department’s principal program manager, Chris Hoffman, explained the role and answered their questions. Candidates then completed several assessment activities, which were used to shortlist 12 people, who were invited to a paid three-week training and assessment program at DHHS. Ten completed the program (with two dropping out) which involved tasks facilitated by Specialisterne, as well as activities conducted by DHHS to simulate the job. Specialisterne then advised the department on who would be most suited to the role, and DHHS offered jobs to eight people.

Stage 4: Prior to the new staff starting, Specialisterne ran training sessions for existing staff about autism, including information sessions, flyers and communication tip sheets, as well as manager training tailored to the new employees. The program participants took part in a five-day transition to work program run by Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood of Minds & Hearts clinic.

Stage 5: Throughout the first three months of employment, Specialisterne met with the team regularly and when needed to ensure a smooth transition. Department-wide training including the new team was conducted, as was mentoring, which included training for mentors.

Lessons

Both autistic and existing DHHS employees had positive responses to the program, found a study on Rise by the La Trobe University Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre in conjunction with Specialisterne.

It found “the [email protected] pilot program was a success, with many positive outcomes” and only a few challenges, which “could readily be addressed in future programs”.

The study summarised its findings in four lessons:

  • Taking the time to understand autism and the needs of each individual is important, particularly for supervisors and managers. The autistic employees reported feeling supported due to their supervisors and managers taking the time to learn about autism and their individual needs, which contributed to their work success.
  • Opportunities for professional development are important. The autistic employees commented that the program provided opportunities for development of professional networks, personal and professional skills, and that they felt their future employability was improved due to participating in this employment program.
  • Awareness training is important for co-workers and others in the organisation. While co-workers in focus groups reported the information provided to them added to their knowledge regarding autism, and the quantitative data indicated that the majority of co-workers who participated valued the program, a few comments suggested that they thought the program was biased against people who weren’t autistic. Thus, it is important to inform co-workers why autistic individuals receive support they may not be receiving themselves.
  • Giving people a chance, and including them as equal employees, can change their lives. In addition to talking about how supported, included, and integrated they felt at DHHS, the autistic employees commented on several positive outcomes, including financial and personal independence, mental and physical wellbeing, personal and professional development, and social relationships.

Leadership

The program also demonstrates the value of leadership in the public sector.

Rise was initiated by department CIO Steve Hodgkinson — rather than a formal diversity program — because he saw it as “the right thing to do”, he wrote in a LinkedIn post.

“The initial discussions that led to the program’s mobilisation occurred over an 18 month period, during which support for the idea ebbed and flowed. Not everyone, even experts in autism, agreed with the approach of creating a cohort of people with ASD that would be recruited as a group and there was initial reluctance around the management impost of bringing in people perceived as having a disability.

“How would they fit in to the team? Would they be able to do the work? Is it a good idea to keep them as a group or spread them around the department? There were many questions and doubts. The CIO quietly, but persistently, pushed the idea along until the right ingredients of money, suitable work tasks and a leader for the initiative were assembled in late 2016.”

The “key breakthrough” was Christian Hofmann’s personal passion for the idea of a program for people with autism, “combined with his collaborative approach and skills as a project manager”, says Hodgkinson.

The reception

The response has been “overwhelmingly positive”, Hodgkinson argues.

One participant has moved on to another full time job in a government agency, and a second cohort has already been recruited.

The program has also won multiple awards, taking out the government category winner award at the 2018 TechDiversity Awards. Christian Hoffman and the Rise at DHHS team received the secretary’s leadership award in the 2019 DHHS Excellence Awards. It was also recently a finalist at the IPAA Victoria Leadership in the Public Sector Awards.

But its biggest impact has been in the lives of the participants. Rise team member Adam said it has offered him great opportunities:

“It’s been pretty life changing for me. In the past, I was getting interviews, and sporadic employment, but not much on a full time basis. The RISE program has benefitted me on a professional and personal level. Giving me vital record-keeping skills, and familiarising me with the work the VPS does, and giving me purpose and confidence.

“… Many Australians on the autism spectrum languish in unemployment, so it’s a fantastic initiative to allow people to display their unique talents and abilities, and to give them a start in the Victorian Public Service. Hopefully this will be a torchbearer for other similar programs in the future.”

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