Australia needs to “rethink” autism in the workplace, according to a not-for-profit disability employment organisation, involved in a world-first initiative to employ autistic adults in specialist animal care roles.
EPIC Assist, an organisation which helps people with disability to prepare for, find and maintain meaningful employment, said there were major problems with the way society viewed disability.
According to EPIC Assist CEO Bill Gamack, as long as those views prevail “we will never truly see progress”.
“When you really get to the core of it, society has starkly different expectations for people with disability compared to people without disability,” Gamack said.
“People with disability generally aren’t expected to achieve highly, particularly in the area of employment and building a career.
“This subject of low expectations is an unfortunate truth and something people struggle to discuss. But without first acknowledging this, we can never expect to tackle it.”
In a bid to find sustainable employment for people on the spectrum EPIC Assist has joined forces with Danish company Specialisterne as they branch into Australia.
Specialisterne focuses on finding sustainable employment for people on the autism spectrum, and has named EPIC Assist their first network partner in Australia.
Specialisterne Australia chairman John Craven said they were serious about getting people on the spectrum into the workforce.
“With less than 30 per cent of people on the spectrum engaged in full-time work, this needs serious attention now,” Craven said.
“The number of people on the spectrum in Australia appears to be on the rise.
“Whether this is an actual increase or just more people being diagnosed, we don’t know. What we do know is that people on the spectrum have a lot to offer to prospective employers and workplaces, and the fact that there are so few in employment is unacceptable.”
One of the first products of the collaboration is a new pilot project called Autism and Agriculture.
EPIC Assist, Specialisterne and Autism CRC teamed up with SunPork Farms for a world-first initiative to employ autistic adults with a high attention to detail in specialist animal care roles.
A total of seven staff members have commenced employment this month at SunPork Farms in Queensland, and a second wave of candidates is set to start work in South Australia in March.
Zach Zaborny with a pig at SunPork Farms
EPIC disability liaison officer Zach Zaborny, who recently spent three weeks on the ground in Queensland to help provide support to new recruits during training and orientation, said it was a fantastic initiative.
“These types of projects are making a great difference in people’s lives,” Zaborny said.
“We met and worked with many applicants that would have otherwise been hard-pressed to gain employment traditionally.”
As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome Zaborny said he understood firsthand the employment struggles faced by people with disability.
“Seeking work hasn’t always been easy,” Zaborny said.
“In the past I have struggled with support from employers and getting them to understand how I really like tasks and structure.
“The very low percentage of people on the spectrum in work is definitely concerning.
“You have a potential workforce of entirely capable individuals who are being overlooked because they don’t meet the expectations of how an employee should be.”
Zaborny highlighted interviews and social interactions as two common areas where people on the spectrum typically struggled.
“Someone on the spectrum might be perfectly qualified for a role but struggle in an interview setting,” he said.
“We have certain ideas about how someone should answer an interview question, and if they don’t answer in that manner, they don’t get the job.”
Craven said the key to change was in education and “changing age-old mindsets”.
“We need to develop workplace processes that harness the autistic attributes, not fight against them,” he said.
“We know people on the spectrum struggle to cope with standard hiring practices and are therefore unsuccessful in finding work. It’s a vicious cycle.
“It’s about educating employers about what to expect and supporting them by adjusting hiring practices and putting in place strong training and support.
“We also need resources available for co-workers, so they can better understand the behaviours and needs of people on the spectrum.
“We then find the talent, correctly assess their needs and identify suitable roles for them.
“Providing ongoing support to the person is also key – the job doesn’t just stop at hiring.”