Recruitment reform urged to include staff on autism spectrum

By Stephen Easton

Monday November 2, 2015

The Australian public service is being urged to make it easier for IT specialists who are on the autism spectrum to get certain jobs they may well do better than any one else.

People on the autism spectrum enjoy and excel at some IT jobs more than their neuro-typical counterparts, according to an organisation that has already convinced the Department of Human Services to increase the neuro-diversity of its workforce.

Social enterprise Specialisterne Australia tells employers the arrangement is of mutual benefit, with the employers gaining certain types of skills that are typically strong among people with autism spectrum disorder (the term “disorder” is not without controversy).

Other typical attributes common among people with ASD make it hard to score highly on generic recruitment criteria like communication skills and teamwork, which are demanded for nearly all jobs.

National Disability Insurance Agency technology leader Marie Johnson believes there are still “immense” opportunities for the public service in this area that could be realised if the program expands beyond DHS. She says APS recruitment practices need to be less homogenous to take advantage of people who have useful skills in the digital era, but might not be as good in traditional areas like reading, spelling and grammar.

“The recruitment processes need … to actually not only be accommodating of diversity, but be redefined,” Johnson commented last week, after software maker SAP told her of its commitment to have 1% of its local workforce, about 10 positions, filled by people with ASD by 2020.

In Johnson’s view, public service organisations should do more to increase diversity “not just because it’s a good thing to do, but because it’s a smart thing to do”.

“I’ve personally always sought out those people who have some differences; they often have something special to add.”

“In my career I’ve personally always sought out those people who have some differences; they often have something special to add,” she said. “The APS statistics [on diversity] speak for themselves. What we say and where we end up are different.”

The software company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer Anka Wittenberg told Johnson and other NDIA executives they believe the move will strengthen SAP’s workforce and give it a competitive advantage, at a meeting during the NDIS New World Conference attended by The Mandarin.

The kinds of jobs that have been identified so far are in areas like the digitisation of records, as well as some areas of cyber security and data analytics. John Craven from Specialisterne Australia, who helped brief the NDIA executives, says some roles are obviously well suited to people with ASD and more types of work are being identified based on research.

Globally, the company has had the same 1% target for a while, based on an estimate of the approximate prevalence of ASD. It already has 85 people with ASD on board around the world and plans to hit 100 by year’s end. Wittenberg says the arrangements have already resulted in positive changes to culture, including “a very clear form of communication” and a significant boost to employee engagement.

The SAP staff who are employed not despite but because they have ASD are employed on the same contracts as everyone else with no limitations and have “buddies” in their teams who act as their go-to person, Wittenberg explained.

NDIA board member Glenn Keys, who chairs the agency’s ICT committee, says he’s disappointed the number of people with disabilities has declined in the APS. “It’s something every Australian should be embarrassed about,” he commented at the meeting.

Of course, the advocates of this employment model are not saying people with ASD are all alike. Specialisterne uses the dandelion as a metaphor because it is a valued plant to herbalists and to young children who like to blow the seeds into the air, while others simply see it as a weed in the lawn.

In a similar way, the autism rights movement has fought the idea that people with ASD suffer from a disorder that should be treated and cured since the 1980s. People on the spectrum are simply different and a lot of the behaviours clinicians try to forcibly stop are harmless, autism rights advocates argue.

On the other hand, there are plenty of carers — parents, family and friends of people with autism, particularly those at the more severe end of the spectrum — who disagree entirely. They would argue that respect for neuro-diversity, despite its compelling philosophical basis, is not enough to help those at the severe end of the spectrum get ahead in a world full of neuro-typical people.

The author was in Brisbane for the NDIS conference as a guest of SAP.

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