By convenor | Fri, 23/10/2020 - 17:29

Melissa Martin

Being diagnosed with autism at the age of 33 was a watershed moment for Josh McKeiver.

Mr McKeiver was in his final semester of a science degree when he read an online story about a woman being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as an adult.

The woman's description of her condition struck a chord with Mr McKeiver, who had suffered through six years of a depressive disorder and severe anxiety.

He eventually acted on his suspicions and saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with autism in 2019.

"That was a huge relief. I cried. I'd never cried so much in my life, over days," he said.

"I was mourning the life that I could have had — my childhood and my youth were non-existent because I spent my whole life, at that point, trying to fit in with everyone and not knowing why I wasn't like anyone else."

There was both grief and relief, Mr McKeiver said, but such feelings gave way to frustration as he discovered the challenges people with ASD faced when navigating the disability and job-seeking systems.

Mr McKeiver hasn't worked for seven years, despite completing a science degree and applying for 200 jobs in one year.

"I'm falling through the gaps in the system, and I know they can be closed," he said.

ASD and the workforce

Josh McKeiver said he had often been told he was not a good cultural fit when being rejected for jobs.(Supplied: Jessie Matthews)

Along with his tertiary credentials, Mr McKeiver has experience in the Air Force and the oil and gas industry.

Among those 200 jobs he applied for — and was rejected from — were cleaning positions.

"[The science degree] got me in the door with a lot of really cool jobs, but part of the graduate programs is doing personality tests; that's where my progress would stop," he said.

"I'd say people [in] those departments would have known that I had autism before I did."

Mr McKeiver said a common knock-back was that he wasn't a "good cultural fit".

Determined to get a job so he could support his partner and their two children, Mr McKeiver embarked on a full-time masters degree by research to increase his employment chances.

But another hurdle presented itself.

He was unable to get Austudy, he said, as it only covered masters by coursework.

Masters by research programs are not approved for student payments "because student payments are designed to assist people to gain entry-level employment, rather than undertake professional development", a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services said.

Mr McKeiver had already been unsuccessful in claiming a disability support pension, and without access to Austudy he was told to apply for JobSeeker, despite being a full-time student.

JobSeeker reporting hard with ASD

Further, Mr McKeiver said, the mutual obligations of fortnightly meetings under JobSeeker conflicted with the severe anxiety he experienced as part of his ASD.

He said he began thinking about the conversation he would have with his disability employment service caseworker days before the meeting or phone call, which affected his ability to study.

"Because I'm stressing about having a pointless meeting; it's like a trigger and it gives me insomnia and anxiety," he said.

"If I was in a position where I was ready to look for work, it would be much different, but being a full-time student, it's a hindrance.

It gets in the way a lot and people are dismissive of just how much it does affect you."

Despite repeated requests to his Disability Employment Service (DES) contact for meetings to be conducted via email, or for his partner Jessie Matthews to speak on his behalf, Mr McKeiver was told the phone or personal meetings were required.

The Department of Social Services spokesperson said that while DES providers could use email to supplement face-to-face or phone contact, they could not normally deliver the necessary support to program participants via email alone.

Mr McKeiver said he had since changed providers.

Ms Matthews said she argued the case that paying her partner Austudy would cost the Government less because not only were they paying him JobSeeker, they were also absorbing the cost of the disability employment service.

She received an email from the Department of Social Services stating it did not have discretionary power to deviate from the legislated rules.

People with ASD 'eminently employable'

Convenor of Autism, Asperger's Advocacy Australia Bob Buckley said Mr McKeiver's experiences were "fairly normal" and described the employment situation for people with ASD as "utterly impossible".

Bob Buckley wants a national autism plan developed to help fix an "utterly impossible" employment system for people with ASD.(ABC News)

"The unemployment outcomes for people with autism is far worse than it should be; they're far worse than for people with a disability in general," he said.

A 2015 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Report found only 6 per cent of National Disability Authority (NDA) users reported paid employment as their main source of income.

The report also found that difficulty changing jobs or getting a preferred job were the most common restrictions reported by 50 per cent of people with autism and disability of working age.

"People with autism are eminently employable, if you provide the right support," Mr Buckley said.

"Twenty to 30 years ago autism was a rare disorder; it's now the number one condition in the NDIS and nobody has made any effort to develop a workforce, or to develop services that actually meet these needs."

Mr Buckley wants the Federal Government to commit to creating a national autism plan to address issues such as those being faced by Mr McKeiver.

"People with autism are some of the highest costs in the NDIS, and not addressing them just makes them more expensive in terms of those kinds of services," he said.

Mr McKeiver is persevering with his studies in the hope it will make him more employable.(Supplied: Jessie Matthews)

'Australian dream' awaits

Mr McKeiver is continuing his studies, in the hope he can gain work in the future and achieve the "Australian dream" of buying a home for his partner and their two children.

He admits it's hard to hope.

"I used to have goals and aspirations. I thought I could apply for some Department of Science [jobs] or do something with coding, but now I'd just like any career," he said.

"Just a job so that I can support my family and make sure I'm not living in poverty on JobSeeker — I'm not fussy."

Ms Matthews said she shared her partner's frustrations, saying their situation sometimes felt hopeless.

"I have low expectations — you know, these things tend to happen to people like Josh. Sadly, it's the Government, the red tape and butting heads all the time," she said.

"I don't know if I'm more pessimistic than Josh, but I don't really see anything changing.

"You're sitting down and you're putting all this energy into advocating for your family, and you kind of feel like it's futile; but if you don't do it, no-one else will."