Workers with autism find door into the public service

By Jackson Graham

February 9, 2022

Gordon Douglas
Gordon Douglas completed Services Australia’s Aurora Neurodiversity Program and is now undertaking its graduate program. (Supplied)

Canberra public servant Gordon Douglas’ initial search for a job in government was met with rejections until he knocked on the right door. 

The 36-year-old with autism cycled through job applications, hoping to find a way to put his public policy degree to use.

But unable to land a role, he worked as a courier driver, insurance claims processor, overseas teacher and spent time on Jobseeker. 

Professionals advised him not to disclose he was autistic in job interviews, and in previous roles he described himself as “first out the door” when it came to job cuts.  

“It’s partly because of the nature of the condition; the underdeveloped social skills make it hard to get through the traditional interview process and traditional appraisal processes as well,” he told The Mandarin of challenges for job seekers with autism.

Then, last year, he was among 11 people with autism to join Services Australia through its Aurora Neurodiversity Program. This year the federal agency recruited Douglas to its graduate program. 

“You finally get the letter and it takes a while to sink in really. To think, ‘hey, I’ve been offered a real job’,” he says. 

A three-week training and assessment phase for the Aurora program is very different to typical job applications. 

Douglas credits this process – requiring him to deliver presentations and develop an idea for a smart phone app – with allowing him to demonstrate his ability and knowledge in ways his earlier bids to gain employment hadn’t. 

“It was only through the intake scheme that I learned a lot about how common my experience was and my symptoms,” he added. 

“Others were in the same strange situation where you are smart and skilled and there are lots of things you can do but you still end up driving a van or something like that.” 

Rotating through areas of Services Australia, working mostly on fraud detection in the agency’s integrity division, Douglas has found his colleagues supportive and understanding of his condition. 

“I am finding so many people who do understand and do have the issues, [or] their brother had it or their son’s got it,” he said. 

“It’s also just the aggressive level of support you get once you’re there, and right from the start in the application and the intake process.” 

The Disability Royal Commission heard last year that federal agency HR databases indicate just 4.1% of staff have a disability, but anonymous APS census data showed 9.3% of employees had a disability – suggesting many people see their condition as a hindrance to job opportunities. 

The unemployment rate of people with autism reached nearly 32% in 2019, about six times more than the general population, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.  

Douglas praises Services Australia for charging itself with doing something to address this figure. 

“Thinking about my own experience, the only difference between where I am now and where I was three years ago is that application,” he says. 

“If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done. And that applies to both the employer and the job seeker.”

Services Australia is due to offer 30 new places in the Aurora Neurodiversity Program this year, with 10 currently available in Canberra and others to open in wider states and territories later this year.

Applications for the Canberra round close on February 21, 2022. More information is online.


A letter from the autistic colleague you didn’t know you had

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