In 2015, about 164,000 people were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Australia, representing 0.7% of the population or 1 in every 150 people (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015).
Employment is widely recognised as an important factor in social inclusion and economic independence. However, the majority of people with ASD experience obstacles in their search for employment. Indeed, only 40.8% of people with ASD of working age (15-64 years old) were employed in 2015, contrasting with the 83.2% of people without a disability (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015).
The unemployment rate of people with ASD is 31.36%. This is three times higher than that of people with a single disability (10.0%) and six times higher than that of people without a disability (5.3%) !
Despite this startling unemployment number, some Australian companies have started developing programs enabling people on the autism spectrum to be hired, often in partnership with Specialisterne Australia.
Specialisterne Australia is a consulting firm specializing in the employment of people with ASD. It supports companies in hiring and helping people with ASD. Specialisterne believes people with ASD offer a wide range of characteristics which represent an advantage in all types of work. However, the “traditional” recruiting system heavily penalizes them.
Specialisterne is one of the first companies in the world to highlight neurodiversity’s benefits in the labour market. Harvard Business School even used it as a case study!
I met with two Specialisterne Australia team members, Rebecca Flower and Jason White, in their office in La Trobe University, Melbourne. I wanted to understand how this new and different consulting activity worked.
But let’s start with introductions !
Rebecca Flower is doctor of psychology, and responsible for research projects, tool development, intellectual property, and quality control at Specialisterne.
Jason White takes care of the business development and is responsible for program deliveries and client relationships.
Founded by visionary Thorkil Sonne, Specialisterne (“The specialists” in Danish) is an innovative social company which helps people with ASD to find employment. Specialisterne believes people with ASD have a great number of skills, characteristics, and talents which can bring a real competitive advantage for companies. These skills and characteristics include: high attention to detail, precision, tolerance for repetition, perfectionism, high level of concentration for sectors of interest etc.
These specific skills are advantages in many sectors and Specialisterne’s objective is to promote these skills and to show employers the competitive advantages which can come from employing people with ASD.
Thorkil Sonne, Danish, has a son with Asperger syndrome. Like many people with ASD, his son had great difficulty finding a job. Instead of seeing this situation as an obstacle, Thorkil Sonne saw it as an opportunity. He decided to use his son’s specificities as an added value and a real competitive advantage. Indeed, he realised his son’s characteristics (and those of many people with ASD) could be really beneficial for the labour market, especially for IT, software, and information technology companies. He created his first company, in order to hire people with ASD, to promote their work and the benefits of having neurodiversity within a team.
This company was a success and today, Specialisterne works in many sectors, not only in software and similar field.
Its success is recognised all over the world. Specialisterne can now be found in many countries: Austria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Spain, the USA, and Australia since 2015.
Specialisterne Australia is based in a bright office of La Trobe University (Melbourne). Founded in 2015, this company set the following objective: to enable 12,500 people with ASD to work in Australia by 2025.
Rebecca Flower and Jason White very kindly welcomed my visit and helped me understand their work. Specialisterne has the following main objectives:
Specialisterne Australia doesn’t only work with software companies, it also has programs for companies in the industrial and financial sectors. In addition, they just finished a program with the state of Victoria!
Specialisterne Australia’s recruitment process
Jason White believes they do the same as any other employer would do. Specialisterne Australia’s recruitment process is simply longer and more patient.
Indeed, a classic recruitment process is often based on social conventions which are not always mastered by people with ASD. This is a real obstacle for them. Even with clear existing skills, most people with ASD fail to get hired.
Specialisterne Australia’s recruitment process lasts four weeks. This time frame allows candidates to show what they know and can do, rather than explain their skills with long and pretty sentences. In short, during these four weeks, Specialistern does everything it can to give candidates the opportunity to show their skills and strengths rather than talk about them during an interview set up to convince a potential employer.
Support brought by Specialisterne Australia
Specialistern Australia’s work is not only about recruitment. It also supports the employer as well as the employee, in order to maximize his/her integration and fulfilment within the new work space. To do so, Specialisterne Australia works with the Thriving at Work program, created by Doctor Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood. The program’s objective is to help companies create an integration culture, in order to hire people with ASD. The program also helps to unravel autism, to show how much strength will be brought to the company by hiring a person with ASD, and to understand the challenges that will come from it.
The program helps employees with ASD to be prepared to be integrated to a new work place. For people with ASD, employment can be very difficult, therefore, many of them haven’t worked for a long time, or have never worked. For them to feel ready to enter a new team and start a new job in the most serene manner is essential. The program is then set up to help them understand forms of communication, and help them create strategies in case of stress. They are also told about their new company, the location, and the building. If needed, Specialisterne will make some adjustments. Indeed, some people with ASD can have sensory sensitivity and it is important to equip them in order to avoid interference with their work. For example: if a new employee is very sensitive to noise, Specialisterne will provide him/her with noise-cancelling headphones and the noise won’t be an obstacle to the employee’s fulfilment at work.
Working with employers is also a big part of Specialisterne Australia’s activity. Many managers ask themselves how can we be prepared for recruiting and employing people on the spectrum. What should the company do? What should the managers do? Specialisterne’s answer is simple: be clear and consistent with communication and give people every opportunity to fully understand what it means to work for the company. A lot of information regarded as “basic” by the employer is not for an employee with ASD. For example, an employer won’t think of taking the time to explain office hours, the best moment to take a break, what type of clothes to wear, what language is appropriate in the work place etc. All these things that we are supposed to know are not necessarily logical for all workers. Specialisterne helps employers to clarify his/her communication and tackle important points to allow the employee to understand all aspects of the business and the company.
Once the employee has started working in the company, Specialisterne doesn’t abandon the employer or the employee. Its work is now to support the employer in developing his/her capacity to help all employees, and especially those with ASD.
A quick look at the future: according to you, what are the challenges to improve people with ASD’s integration?
Rebecca Flower : What we need to do in the short term is really conduct more research. There is very little research in the autism area, of autism employment, and we need to work with autistic adults to see what they need and to see what they would like to see happen, what change they would like to see happen (…) and so we really need to understand from their perspective what we could be doing. She thinks that we also need to conduct more research into area like job fits or how we can best determine who is going to be great in a particular job role, (…) what is going to lead to more sustainable jobs, how can we best manage our neurodiverse workforce. Understanding those things would really help Specialisterne to succeed in the long term and not just finding jobs for autistic adults but really helping them find successful careers that they enjoy.
Jason White : Jason believes that to build a more inclusive society in the long term, we need to have a look at how children are educated. If we look at 50 years from now, the employers then are today’s children. We need to educate the teachers and educators of these children to increase the chance to have a better and more inclusive society in the future. When the children will be adults, when they will be either an employer or an employee, they will be more inclusive by nature. Today’s children’s education can create a more inclusive world tomorrow.