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#WAAD: autism and filling the talent gap

Imagine, for a second, you are part of Australia’s autistic community. The statistics are thin but according to research in the United Kingdom there is an 84 per cent chance you are underemployed or unemployed. Just 32 per cent of autistic adults are in some kind of paid work. 

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As a result of this, your risk of health issues related to under-employment - loneliness, anxiety, depression and self-harm – is heightened. 

"[Underemployment of the autistic community is] simply not right, not just because of the social injustice but because of the wasted talent.” 

You may have never been in work; you may have, but are now out of the system due to a poor employment experience.

Imagine instead you are one of the lucky ones – one of the 16 per cent who are fully employed. Sure, you are perfectly capable (maybe more than that – the same UK study found 60 per cent of  you have cognitive abilities as good or better than non-autistic people) at work.

But you may find it difficult to interact socially, struggle relating to people, face bullying or lack self confidence.

Now step back: If you are a man, you represent one in 150 Australian men. If you are a woman, one in 750. Research increasingly shows many women on the spectrum are ‘hiding in plain sight’ and diagnosis rates, while on the increase, are underrepresented. 

Women typically present differently to men and this – alongside assumptions autism is a male disorder – disadvantage women with regards to receiving the support they need. Experts agree more needs to be done.

Autistic people make up the second-largest disability community – but are three times more likely to be unemployed than anyone else.  It’s simply not right, not just because of the social injustice but because of the wasted talent which hurts the economy, businesses and broader society.

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Lonely or untapped talent - it’s all a matter of perspective. Illustration: Tim Burke

Talent

A 2011 study found the economic costs related to autism in Australia was just under $A6 billion, spread across families, communities and government. Costs related to reduced quality of life is an additional $A3.9 billion.

A study from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2015 estimates 164,000 Australians are autistic  

The figure is up from an estimated 64,400 people in 2009, indicating a growth rate which outstrips many other disabilities.

According to The Conversation, around one in 100 children are diagnosed as on the spectrum. Research from the National Disability Insurance Scheme shows 29 per cent of participants in the program are autistic.

All these statistics suggest unless employment in the autistic community is properly addressed we’ll continue to propagate this social injustice not to mention waste valuable talent needed to grow a strong economy in this digital age.  The good news is there are groups already making the right moves.  

Many names

As competition for talent heats up – particularly in the information technology sector – organisations are looking at alternative approaches to ensure they tap into a more-diverse workforce.

Companies like software group SAP, tech giant Microsoft, services provider DXC technology and investment bank JP Morgan Chase are among the many names pioneering this talent pool for some years and their results are astounding.

For instance, JP Morgan Chase assessed a non-autistic and autistic team in their testing area and the autistic team were 48 per cent more productive.

The societal challenge and productivity opportunity are something we just cannot ignore. 

Opportunity

At ANZ, our response has been to partner with DXC technology and establish the Spectrum Program, adapted from their highly successful Dandelion program currently running in the Australian Federal Government’s departments of Home Affairs, Defence and Human Services.

Our program has seen nine candidates, two team leads and an autism spectrum consultant, known as the ‘Pod’ recently established.

It is a three year commitment to the participants to develop them as cybersecurity and testing analysts.

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Matt and his son Josh. Photo: supplied.

The program team leads work closely with our ANZ team leads to ensure there is a constant flow of work, training and tooling aligned to ANZ’s way of working.

The autism spectrum consultant is critical to the success of the program, helping candidates with the very real challenges they face in regard to social interaction, communication and relationship building.

During the period participants go on outplacement to their ANZ teams and between the end of year one and three, all candidates will be offered full-time employment with ANZ.

The impact of the program is already turning heads. As one volunteer said, it has been a “deeply interesting and profoundly affecting experience, volunteering with this group of brilliant, passionate and motivated people”.

“I was impressed by the diverse range of talents, interests, and the depth of knowledge and personal courage that the participants possessed.”

Ultimately ANZ’s vision is to scale up and with our customers and partners to scale out. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback and a lot of people asking how they can help.

Our strategy is to supercharge the efforts of organisations leading in this space with our talent and facilities.

I will leave you with this excerpt from Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s book Fish in a Tree, which encourages everyone to celebrate different gifts and talents.

“Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.”

Together we can leave a legacy far beyond ourselves that doesn’t just help a community but changes a nation

Matt Ormiston is Head of Tech - Corporate Optimisation and Director – Spectrum Program, TSO at ANZ.

The illustrations in this story were created by Tim Burke.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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