Neurodiverse jobseekers still facing significant barriers from entering workforce: study

Study calls for mandatory neurodiversity training across all workplaces

Neurodiverse jobseekers still facing significant barriers from entering workforce: study

A new study has found employers are still failing to see the benefits of hiring neurodiverse workers, despite widespread evidence of the unique strengths possessed by those on the autism spectrum.

The research by the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) looked at the barriers facing adults on the autism spectrum trying to enter the workforce and found significant obstacles still exist.

The study’s lead author Dr Yosheen Pillay, a lecturer in educational counselling at USQ, told HRD the situation facing autistic jobseekers is alarming. The unemployment rate for Australian adults on the autism spectrum is more than three times the rate of people with a disability and almost six times the rate of neurotypical adults. Combine this with the fact that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder is growing faster than any other disability, with Autism Spectrum Australia putting the rate at around 1 in 70.

“As part of our research we interviewed 14 disability services across Queensland and the findings were alarmingly similar,” she said. “One of the quotes we received which sticks in my mind is that young people with autism are the most difficult to place in employment. Among their caseload, they sit at the bottom of the list, swimming around in circles.”

Read more: Neurodiversity hiring – is this the key to plugging Australia's tech skills gap?

The research found a significant support gap between education and entering the workforce, which is one of the most critical periods in a young person’s life. That first experience of entering the workforce can be positive and rewarding, or without the right support in place, it can have long lasting negative effects for both employer and employee. So, what can businesses do to improve the situation?

Pillay believes the answer is twofold. Firstly, she says mandatory neurodiversity training across all employees is vital. It’s important that both managers and colleagues get a better understanding of what autism is and how it affects the way a person works or communicates. Autism is often described as an “invisible disability” and many neurotypical people don't feel comfortable asking questions about the lived experience of those with autism. But this culture of silence is part of the problem.

“Part of the challenge facing disability services is the traits inherent to an autism diagnosis, which include difficulties with communication and difficulties with social interaction. Workplaces are social places and typically have some element of noise,” she said.

“These are triggers that tend to interfere with the way in which young people with autism work. But that doesn't mean that they can't work, it just means that they work differently.”

With training, support and the right office set-up, these challenges are easily overcome and in Australia, we’re starting to see more neurodiverse hiring programs emerge. Earlier this year, Telstra launched a neurodiverse hiring pilot for a number of technology-based roles, following in the footsteps of JP Morgan, Westpac, ANZ and IBM.

Read more: Telstra launches neurodiversity hiring pilot

Through the study, the team at USQ found the misconception that hiring neurodiverse workers would be costly to the business still exists among some employers. This is despite research that proves the wealth of benefits on offer to employers which embrace neurodiverse hiring. For example, JPMorgan Chase reports that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors and are 90% to 140% more productive than neurotypical employees.

Changing the narrative around neurodiverse employees is one of the foundations for shifting the dial on unemployment. Along with robust training for all workplaces, and dedicated support mechanisms in place, employers hold a great deal of power when it comes to making workplaces more accessible.

“Certainly our research has found that there is incredible benefit to the workplace or the employer if certain needs are met,” Pillay said. “What we are finding now with the new generation of young adults in that age group is they very much advocate for their positive traits.

“They want to have a voice, they want to be heard. That is something that's fairly new and that we’ve seen emerge in the last two to four years which is just brilliant.”

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