When Chris Varney was in Year 2 he presented his teacher with an incredibly detailed visual chart of the royal families of Europe from the 14th to the 19th century.
“I just felt I had found a new way of seeing the last millennium. No wonder we have so many revolutions and conflict, these families were way too connected, small community, completely out of touch,” he quips during his TED talk Autism: How my unstoppable mother proved the experts wrong.
His teacher said: “Oh goodness, Chris, doesn’t this chart look interesting. But darling, our assignment is on winter.” Seven-year-old Varney thought: “I’ve just done a PhD on the whole last millennium. And you want me to draw clouds and rain?”
Today Varney believes it is these skills that often come with autism – thinking outside the box, intense focus, dogged persistence and attention to detail – that have helped him throughout his career.
He studied law (“I only thrived at the end when I followed my own learning style and recreated my law exam notes into Harry Potter spells and Lord of the Rings lands”), was the 2009 Australian Youth Representative to the United Nations and worked for 11 years at World Vision, managing a team of six.
Then, at the age of 26, he established the largest autistic-led organisation in the country.
Now in its ninth year, the I CAN Network, which mentors autistic young people, employs 99 people Australia-wide, 74 of whom are proudly autistic.
Varney believes there is a need for a positive rethink of autism, a neurological developmental disability that affects how a person thinks, feels, interacts with others, and experiences their environment.
It is estimated that 1 in 70 people are on the autism spectrum, with some autistic people also having other conditions, such as intellectual disability, epilepsy, gastro-intestinal issues, anxiety, depression, hyperactivity, sleep problems and speech challenges.
Autism is known as a spectrum disorder because every autistic person is different, with unique strengths and challenges.
Varney says many autistic people experienced education as a system that focused on these challenges, which can include social difficulties and anxiety.
He is pleased this is changing, with recent reforms embracing autistic students’ strengths.
But the unemployment rate of autistic people remains disturbingly high. ABS data from 2018 shows 34.1 per cent of autistic people are unemployed – three times higher than that of people with any type of disability and almost eight times that of those without a disability.
“A lot of the time people hear that someone’s autistic and they assume incompetence,” says Varney, who was this week appointed the chair of the Victorian Disability Advisory Council.
“But we have unique strengths, specifically hyper focus, great creativity, and we can think outside the box, which is a great asset in workplaces.”
In Israel, the defence force has a specialist intelligence unit made up exclusively of autistic soldiers, whose skills are deployed in analysing, interpreting and understanding satellite images and maps.
Locally, organisations that actively recruit autistic talent include software giant SAP, Westpac, IBM, ANZ, the Australian Tax Office, Telstra, NAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Chris Pedron is a junior data analyst at Australian Spatial Analytics, a social enterprise that says on its website “neurodiversity is our advantage – our team is simply faster and more precise at data processing”.
He was hired after an informal chat. (Australian Spatial Analytics also often provides interview questions 48 hours in advance.)
Pedron says the traditional recruitment process can work against autistic people because there are a lot of unwritten social cues, such as body language, which he doesn’t always pick up on.
“If I’m going in and I’m acting a bit physically standoffish, I’ve got my arms crossed or something, it’s not that I’m not wanting to be there, it’s just that new social interaction is something that causes anxiety.”
Pedron also finds eye contact uncomfortable and has had to train himself over the years to concentrate on a point on someone’s face.
Australian Spatial Analytics addresses a skills shortage by delivering a range of data services that were traditionally outsourced offshore.
Projects include digital farm maps for the grazing industry, technical documentation for large infrastructure and map creation for land administration.
Pedron has always found it easy to map things out in his head. “A lot of the work done here at ASA is geospatial so having autistic people with a very visual mindset is very much an advantage for this particular job.”
Pedron listens to music on headphones in the office, which helps him concentrate, and stops him from being distracted. He says the simpler and clearer the instructions, the easier it is for him to understand. “The less I have to read between the lines to understand what is required of me the better.”
Australian Spatial Analytics is one of three jobs-focused social enterprises launched by Queensland charity White Box Enterprises.
It has grown from three to 80 employees in 18 months and – thanks to philanthropist Naomi Milgrom, who has provided office space in Cremorne – has this year expanded to Melbourne, enabling Australian Spatial Analytics to create 50 roles for Victorians by the end of the year.
Chief executive Geoff Smith hopes they are at the front of a wave of employers recognising that hiring autistic people can make good business sense.
“Rather than focus on the deficits of the person, focus on the strengths. A quarter of National Disability Insurance Scheme plans name autism as the primary disability, so society has no choice – there’s going to be such a huge number of people who are young and looking for jobs who are autistic. There is a skills shortage as it is, so you need to look at neurodiverse talent.”
In 2017, IBM launched a campaign to hire more neurodiverse (a term that covers a range of conditions including autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, and dyslexia) candidates.
The initiative was in part inspired by software and data quality engineering services firm Ultranauts, who boasted at an event “they ate IBM’s lunch at testing by using an all-autistic staff”.
The following year Belinda Sheehan, a senior managing consultant at IBM, was tasked with rolling out a pilot at its client innovation centre in Ballarat.
“IBM is very big on inclusivity,” says Sheehan. “And if we don’t have diversity of thought, we won’t have innovation. So those two things go hand in hand.”
Eight things workplaces can do for autistic employees
- Recruit differently. Send applicants interview questions in advance or use work trials and practical assessments
- Offer flexible hours
- Provide noise cancelling headphones and quiet spaces
- Give clear and direct instructions and feedback
- Have mentors or a buddy system
- Don’t make assumptions about autistic people
- Provide managers with autism training
- Partner with autism employment experts
Sheehan worked with Specialisterne Australia, a social enterprise that assists businesses in recruiting and supporting autistic people, to find talent using a non-traditional recruitment process that included a week-long task.
Candidates were asked to work together to find a way for a record shop to connect with customers when the bricks and mortar store was closed due to COVID.
Ten employees were eventually selected. They started in July 2019 and work in roles across IBM, including data analysis, testing, user experience design, data engineering, automation, blockchain and software development. Another eight employees were hired in July 2021.
Sheehan says clients have been delighted with their ideas. “The UX [user experience] designer, for example, comes in with such a different lens. Particularly as we go to artificial intelligence, you need those different thinkers.”
One client said if they had to describe the most valuable contribution to the project in two words it would be “ludicrous speed”. Another said: “automation genius.”
IBM has sought to make the office more inclusive by creating calming, low sensory spaces.
It has formed a business resource group for neurodiverse employees and their allies, with four squads focusing on recruitment, awareness, career advancement and policies and procedures.
And it has hired a neurodiversity coach to work with individuals and managers.
Sheehan says that challenges have included some employees getting frustrated because they did not have enough work.
“These individuals want to come to work and get the work done – they are not going off for a coffee and chatting.”
Increased productivity is a good problem to have, Sheehan says, but as a manager, she needs to come up with ways they can enhance their skills in their downtime.
There have also been difficulties around different communication styles, with staff finding some autistic employees a bit blunt.
Sheehan encourages all staff to do a neurodiversity 101 training course run by IBM.
“Something may be perceived as rude, but we have to turn that into a positive. It’s good to have someone who is direct, at least we all know what that person is thinking.”
Chris Varney is delighted to see neurodiversity programs in some industries but points out that every autistic person has different interests and abilities.
Some are non-verbal, for example, and not all have the stereotypical autism skills that make them excel at data analysis.
“We’ve seen a big recognition that autistic people are an asset to banks and IT firms, but there’s a lot more work to be done,” Varney says.
“We need to see jobs for a diverse range of autistic people.”