03/05/2019 - 13:56

Call to give autism skills a chance

03/05/2019 - 13:56

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Autism advocates want businesses to rethink their notions of individuals on the spectrum.

Kate Beattie and Louise Sheehy say businesses need to broaden their view of autism. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Autism advocates want businesses to rethink their notions of individuals on the spectrum.

Kate Beattie has an intimate view of the challenges facing people with autism.

The head of marketing at Perth consultant Harrier Group is mother to nine-year-old Archer, one of more than 230,000 Australians diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

“He spends his days waiting to be told off for not listening, trying to concentrate on his teacher, remembering to listen out for cars, and trying to engage in conversation without getting distracted and appearing rude,” Ms Beattie told Business News.

“It is mentally and physically exhausting.”

Taking their lead from the US, Australian businesses are beginning to include autism at work programs to help develop opportunities and appropriate environments for people with autism.

Despite this, Ms Beattie is concerned these programs are targeting overly specific skillsets in the area of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“While I agree that there are people on the spectrum that will be talented engineers, cyber-security specialists, developers, risk analysts and statisticians, there are many others that won’t – or that don’t want to be,” she said.

“A friend told me recently that these programs make him feel like he’s ‘even failing at having autism’ and he’s not alone; many people believe that there is a broad and diverse spectrum of people and abilities being overlooked.”

While praising neuro-diversity programs offered by companies such as IBM, Westpac and ANZ, she believes these opportunities should be available in a wider variety of roles.

Up to 44 per cent of children diagnosed with autism had average or above average capabilities, Ms Beattie said, but an unemployment rate of 32 per cent – more than six times that of people without a disability – was partly caused by a lack of understanding.

“Imagine desperately wanting to make friends at work but feeling worried that colleagues might misunderstand your communication style,” she said.

“Maybe your new open plan office is completely overwhelming, making you anxious and withdrawn.

“I’d like to see more focus on understanding how people with neurological differences relate and respond to the world around them and to recognise this as a natural variation in how humans think.”

Autism West chief executive Louise Sheehy told Business News the organisation was working with corporate businesses to include neuro-diversity as part of diversity policy, with a focus on understanding how a broader range of individuals with autism might think.

“We (recently) had an interesting panel with a couple of young people in the IT industry, as well as an artist,” Ms Sheehy said.

“They had a very animated discussion around pattern recognition – that’s probably why there’s a predisposition towards technology.

“But an individual with autism, once they’re engaged with a particular subject matter, can add a lot to any industry.”

The not-for-profit organisation holds regular employment forums, and Ms Sheehy said the process of including neurologically diverse people within a company was not as difficult or arduous as many believed.

She noted the example of an employment push for neuro-diversity within some major US companies, where it was estimated the average cost to accommodate an individual with autism was $US500 ($710).

“The issue lies with awareness, because autism awareness is the equivalent of a wheelchair ramp for someone who has a physical disability,” Ms Sheehy said.

“For the employers and fellow workers to be aware of what may impact an individual is key because, in order for anyone to function successfully, they have to be in a comfortable space.”

Diversity policy, autism awareness training, and recruitment were vital areas that could produce an immediate impact, she said.

Because the definition of autism was inclusive of a huge range of individual strengths and weaknesses, these measures were also applicable to any industry, and any business.

“Our guys, when they focus, they focus extremely well, and are very task orientated,” Ms Sheehy said.

“That maps out into lots of different areas, not just STEM.

“It has to be individual, because what works for one person might not necessarily work for another person.”

Ms Beattie is hopeful that, as her son gets older, many of these hurdles to work will be removed.

“People with autism have interests as varied and as valuable as any other group in society,” she said.

“I’m confident that whoever employs Archer in the future will be thrilled with his creativity, big picture thinking and desire to always do better,” she said.

“I just hope that it’s in an industry and role of his choosing and not one that has been prescribed based on stereotypical skills and attributes imposed on him by others.”

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