Podcast: Two Cents' Worth

The autism employment conundrum

Jackson is articulate, hardworking and reliable; he stuck with holiday jobs while he was at school.

He has a good sense of humour, holds forklift and driver’s licences, and has his own car. He is looking for work in a buoyant market.

It should be easy, but it’s not.

Jackson’s autistic.

His mum, journalist Alexia Russell said Jackson seems to tick all the boxes for what New Zealand companies are looking for.

“He’s young, he’s strong, he’s available, he’s willing. But getting an employer to pick him up is an entirely different thing. It seems that while the construction industry is short of labour, it’s also short of employers willing to take a chance on someone.”

Someone who thinks and sometimes behaves a bit differently to his neurotypical peers.

It’s a big problem, and not just for Jackson. International research suggests somewhere between one in every 66 people and one in every 100 people is on the spectrum. That could be 70,000 people in New Zealand alone.

And finding a job is hard. Australian research released last month found the unemployment rate for autistic people is almost 32 percent.

“This is three times the rate of people with a disability, and almost six times the rate of people without disability,” said Fiona Sharkie, CEO of autism organisation Amaze, which commissioned the study.

More than half (53.9 percent) of the unemployed autistic people surveyed had never had a paid job. But crucially, they wanted to work, the research found.

They were stymied by lack of support finding a job (33 percent), inability to attend interviews because of their autism and the anxiety which often goes with it (31 percent), and a lack of understanding from employers (29 percent).

Meanwhile a fifth of the 1300 participants in the study said they had lost a job because of their autism.

“The message from Australia’s autistic community is abundantly clear – they want to work, and employers need to give them the same opportunities to enjoy participating in the workforce,” Sharkie said.

It’s not easy. In 2013, multinational software corporation SAP launched its Autism at Work programme. The aim was to “hire skilled colleagues in spite of autism and because of autism, bringing different and more diverse perspectives to our creative process”.

And they set out to hire 650 autistic people by 2020 - one for every 100 of the company’s 65,000 staff.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

In the almost six years since SAP started its programme it has taken on just 140 autistic staffers, including four in New Zealand. At the same time total employee numbers worldwide have grown to 93,000. That makes the autistic:neurotypical ratio closer to 1:600 than 1:100.

So where does it go wrong?

Michael Fieldhouse heads Australia’s DXC Dandelion programme, which also looks to bring people on the autistic spectrum into the IT workforce.

Fieldhouse believes the problems start with job ads, which often stress the requirement for people and communication skills, even for jobs that don’t really need them.

Take a random look through Trade Me jobs and you’ll find ads for forklift drivers who need “excellent communications skills”, invoice dispatchers where “team work is second nature to you”, and “self motivated, proactive” freight handlers “with a can-do attitude”.


“If you look at a job ad, most autistic people will go through it pretty literally by the job description. They will self select out if there’s one element that they can’t do," said Fieldhouse. 

“Typically a neurotypical, which is what they call us, would say, ‘Well I know about 80 percent of that, I think I can do that, so I’ll apply’. Whereas an autistic person will go through that ad and say ‘I can’t tick that box, so I can’t go ahead and apply.’”

A better way to write job ads is to list tasks which need to be done, according to Fieldhouse.

The second roadblock for autistic people is the job interview - and that’s a big one. Not many people relish job interviews, but they are a game that neurotypical people mostly know how to play. But they don’t come naturally to people on the autistic spectrum, who are often also struggling with anxiety.

Jackson has had a few interviews, but they mostly didn’t go that well.

“A few small things, like fidgety and not being able to keep your eyes still and maybe presenting myself too loosely, I think.”

Russell said Jackson has a tendency to stab himself in the foot by being too honest. She remembers an incident when an employer asked Jackson something about his passion for the job and Jackson saying that he’d rather be at home playing video games.

“It doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to be at work,” Russell said, “It means literally it would be better being at home playing video games.”

Which is probably what a lot of us think at heart; we just wouldn’t tell the boss.

“If you have three kids turning up for a job interview and one of the three is a bit awkward, doesn’t look you in the face, mumbles a little bit and the other two are bright sparks, who know all the tricks and ticks, there’s not really any competition as who, as an employer, you will take,” Russell said, “I think that’s what we are finding.”

Fieldhouse said that’s why DXC Dandelion doesn’t use interviews in its recruitment process.

“We use a set of games that represent work tasks and we measure [candidates] on their performance at those work tasks."

Does that work?

“We’ve been very successful at hiring people; we have a 92 percent retention rate; over 75 percent job satisfaction rate and we see 35-40 percent better productivity in the individuals we get,” Fieldhouse said

Which is to say that quite often autistic people are better at the job than neurotypicals. Russell agrees.

“You forget that with autistic kids, they often think outside the box. Chances are fairly good that after a bit of time Jackson would work out a better way to do it because that’s the way his mind works.”

Jonathan Ball is a great example of what can happen when a company gives an autistic person a chance. Not in IT - Ball has no special affinity with computers.

Jonathan Ball at work Photo: RNZ/Nikki Mandow

Ball works in the kitchen at the Bert Sutcliffe Retirement Village in Birkenhead in Auckland.

Since starting as a kitchen hand two years ago, Ball has taken on various additional roles, including training new recruits.

“I’m hard working, I’m a good team leader, team player and I am a yes man. I would really say yes to any opportunity the employer will or would give me," he said. 

“I’ve actually assumed a leadership role and I’ve become irreplaceable in my department."

Ball has also become a bit of a champion for autistic people in the workforce. He’s been flown to Wellington more than once to talk to politicians and has presented at conferences about autism and employment.

But before getting the retirement village job, Ball spent more than a year on a benefit and working in construction jobs he hated. He applied for numerous entry-level catering jobs - kitchen hands, washers up. But didn’t get anything.

“I almost gave up all hope. Without this job I probably would still be in the labouring industry, going from job to job and trying to make ends meet,” said Ball.

Things only changed for Ball when he hooked up with Autism New Zealand’s employment programme, and received coaching and mentoring.

“The training exercises got me the confidence I needed to overcome that fear of meeting an employer and saying what I need to say and to really succeed in a perfect interview,” he said.

Ball’s Autism NZ mentor went with him to the job interview and was available as a contact for his boss after he got the job - in case there were problems or misunderstandings.

No one’s saying bringing autistic people into a largely neurotypical workforce isn’t hard - even with the best will in the world.

An autistic employee might need different sorts of training, a mentor, or a quieter working environment. They might need instructions written down or tasks split into manageable chunks.

Russell said in Jackson's case, he really just needs someone with a bit of patience.

“Maybe whereas other kids have to be told something once and they’ll get on with it, maybe Jack has to be told 2 or 3 times for it to really click, for him to get that processing system right.”  

SAP New Zealand account director Sarah Pomare says her company sometimes struggles with the different communication styles between autistic and neurotypical team members.

“Communication within teams is something we have to do a lot of and autistic people don’t work in the same way. They don’t understand some of our humour, sarcasm for example. Or the unspoken nuances we just get on a day-to-day basis. 

Remember the now-famous “sandwich” scene in the 2014 movie the Imitation Game?

Benedict Cumberbatch, plays Alan Turing, the genius scientist working to break Germany’s enigma codes and win World War II. It’s a perhaps stereotypical autistic spectrum versus neurotypical interaction, but perhaps no less instructive.

One of Turing’s colleagues tells him they are going to lunch, and Turing ignores him. For the colleagues “The boys, we’re going to get some lunch” is an invitation. Not for Turing.

It’s worth watching. Google it.

On the positive side, Pomare says in some cases neurotypicals getting better at communicating with autistic people has produced benefits for SAP.

“So within our teams we had to change the ways we communicate and be much more clear and concise with the way we communicate when we are asking for things to be done.

“As a global organisation we often have lots of different cultures involved in teams, so it’s helped us get better at communication in those circumstances as well,” she said.

One of the original reasons SAP had for launching Autism at Work was research that suggested being inclusive is good for business.

“For example Burse and Deloitte said companies which are truly inclusive are six times more likely to cope with change and six times more likely to be innovative. And in our industry, being innovative is everything.” 

Meanwhile research from the International Labour Organisation suggests the economic cost of excluding people with disabilities from the workforce could be up to 7 percent of GDP. And New Zealand figures show we miss out on an estimated $1 billion a year just in tax revenue we don’t get from disabled people who can’t find jobs.

Apply the same maths to autistic people and you get around $75 million in lost tax revenue. Instead the government pays out millions in benefits.

So why are employers so reluctant to take on autistic staff?

Recruiter Adrian Coysh reckons fear is a big factor.

“You don’t know what you are going to end up with.”

Coysh runs the Possibility website, which aims to link disabled people with companies that might want to hire them. His focus on disability recruitment started after he discovered three of his four children were going blind, and now it’s pretty much his full time job.

Autism is a significant part of that.

“There’s a huge untapped pool of people out there. It’s just getting the employers to understand how to work with them and how to get the most out of those people.”

Coysh says for many neurotypical employers their view of autism comes from the movie Rainman - or some kid having a meltdown in the supermarket.

And although companies are more receptive to employing autistic people than they used to be, his experience is that deals often fall over at the last minute.

“I’ve had a number of autistic people who’ve just about got their first job, but in the end the employer got cold feet. 

“Generally the problem is not with people up the chain; they want to hire people with disabilities. But it’s the people working with them day in day out. When it comes to the actual selection point, there’s a perceived risk involved here, so they decide they will just stick with what they know," he said.

Which leaves us where we started -  Jackson and his job hunt

“I’ll do what I’m told, straight out. I think I’ve got a pretty good affinity with machines. I’m willing and able. I’m ready for this. Just call me.”

About Two Cents' Worth

Two Cents' Worth has been launched by Newsroom in a co-production with RNZ. It is the country's first weekly business podcast and will be broadcast just after the midday news on Sundays on RNZ National, will be available on both RNZ and Newsroom's websites and can also be found on iTunes and other podcast apps.

Each week we will examine one issue in depth and then convene a panel discussion. Here is this week's version on RNZ as well. 

Two Cents' Worth - the business week and the business outlook. Previous episodes are below.

Episode 1: Sunday November 4: The rise of double cab utes, the TAB's big profit and a threat to small electricity retailers.

Episode 2: Sunday November 11: Why your first job is crucial, why interest rates are so low and why wholesale power prices are so high

Episode 3: Sunday November 18: Inside a zombie town as its mill faces a closure decision, how a New Zealand company won big in Singles day and the future of Vector after the departure of chairman Michael Stiassny.

Episode 4: Sunday November 26: The rule of 8s and Trade Me’s big buyer

Episode 5: Sunday December 2: Why we don't buy cheap petrol

Episode 6: Sunday December 9:  Inside open banking

Episode 7: Sunday December 16: A ride sharing revolution

Episode 8: Friday January 25:  Salmon set to surpass dairy, save the planet

Episode 9: Friday, February 1: The wedding economy: a love story  

Episode 10: Friday, February 8: Our place in the space race

Episode 11: Friday, February 15: How NZ changed world economies  

Episode 12: Friday, February 23: The Park Mews effect 

Episode 13: Friday, March 1: Refashioning NZ's rag trade 

Episode 14: Friday, March 8: Recycling plastic won't save the world 

Episode 15: Friday, March 15: The secret battle of the CPTPP

Episode 16: Friday, March 22: Raw power in the internet era 

Episode 17: Friday, April 5: Hundreds more Bryans 

Episode 18: Growing a cannabis economy 

Episode 19: Opening the books 

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