Employment for individuals on the autism spectrum is an increasingly important societal issue. The unemployment rate for autistic individuals of working age is 31.6 per cent, which is over three times the rate of unemployment among people with a disability, and approximately six times that among people without a disability. Therefore, in 2017, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) 2017 launched its Rise@DHHS program.
Rise@DHHS is an award-winning program created by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, in partnership with autism non-profit social enterprise Specialisterne Australia, as the State Government’s first attempt to provide leadership in its own employment practices by employing people on the autism spectrum. This pilot program has been evaluated by a team of researchers from La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) and LBS. The full report can be downloaded here.
Lead author Dr Rebecca Flower, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at OTARC, noted “The traditional job interview is a common barrier for people with autism, who may communicate differently to non-autistic people. Candidates in the Rise@DHHS program were given a chance to showcase their skills in a supportive environment, as opposed to talking about them.”
The research report summarises in-depth interviews with the eight people on the autism spectrum who were hired for the pilot program, as well as surveys and focus groups with co-workers and managers. The research identified the most successful aspects of the Rise@DHHS program, including changes to the recruitment, selection, and onboarding processes. Furthermore, focus groups with existing DHHS employees indicated that the program has had a positive impact on themselves as individuals, stating they felt like they had grown personally through their involvement with the initiative and were now mindful of things like clarity in communication.
The impact of employment on individuals
Most importantly, the research demonstrates the tremendous impact that employment has for individuals with autism. Prior to working as a Rise@DHHS employee, Adam Walton had spent long periods of time either unemployed, or in short-term, casual roles. When discussing the program, he noted:
“It’s been a lifechanging experience for me, being able to have a routine and more structure in my life. I feel like I’m finally contributing to society. I don’t feel like I’m a burden.”
The researchers identified several recommendations, including that workplaces need to prioritise diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. “The findings of this research align nicely with other studies, showing that it’s really all about understanding autism, supportive management, and including people. This is a great thing, not only for individuals with autism, but for the companies employing them,” Dr Flower said.
LBS researcher and study co-author Dr Jennifer Spoor points out that “employing people with autism often requires only small changes to management practices, such as making communication clear or being flexible about sound or lighting in the workplace, which often benefits all employees.”
Funding for the research was provided by DHHS and by an Engagement Income Growth Grant from LTU's School of Psychology and Public Health.
More information on the program and the research can be found in the OTARC report here. You might also like LTU News’ article Workforce success for autistic employees.