Workforce success for autistic employees

Results of a pilot study into the Victorian Government’s first employment initiative for people with autism have been published by La Trobe University.

The Rise@DHHS program – created by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, in partnership with autism non-profit social enterprise Specialisterne Australia – has been evaluated by a team of researchers from La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) and the La Trobe Business School.

The award-winning program is the first example of the State Government providing leadership in its own employment practices by employing people on the autism spectrum. This was one of the recommendations from the 2017 Victorian Government Inquiry into services for people with autism spectrum disorder.

Eight people were hired for the pilot program, to work as Records Management Officers under two-year, full-time contracts.

One of the lead researchers, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow from OTARC, Dr Rebecca Flower, said the study identified the most successful aspects of the Rise@DHHS program.

“Autistic employees said that the alternative recruitment method used in this program, which included a half-day workshop and a paid three-week training and assessment program for shortlisted candidates, had been beneficial for them compared to more traditional selection processes, as it provided additional information about the organisation and roles,” Dr Flower said.

“The traditional job interview is a common barrier for autistic people, who may communicate differently to non-autistic people. Autistic candidates in the Rise@DHHS program were given a chance to showcase their skills in a supportive environment, as opposed to talking about them.

“Our one-on-one interviews with autistic employees in the research study also revealed that taking the time to understand and support the needs of each individual, and training that increased autism knowledge for existing DHHS staff – particularly managers and supervisors – contributed to their work success.”

Dr Flower said 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.

Prior to working as a Rise@DHHS employee, Adam Walton had spent long periods of time either unemployed, or in short-term, casual roles.

“This is the first time I’ve been able to secure a full-time job,” Mr Walton said.

“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.”

Mr Walton said DHHS has been accepting of feedback and suggestions for change from autistic employees.

“We’ve had many opportunities to spread awareness and knowledge of autism,” Mr Walton said.

“Public speaking is a new skill I’ve really been able to develop at DHHS, in my aim to better employment systems for people with autism.”

The La Trobe-led study also included focus groups with existing DHHS employees, who noted 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.

“It’s essential our public service reflects the diversity we see in the Victorian community and this program is doing exactly that,”Minister for Disability, Ageing and Carers, Luke Donnellan said.

“It’s fantastic to see Rise@DHHS delivering such excellent results and giving Victorians with Autism Spectrum Disorder the opportunity to not only succeed but thrive in the workforce.”

“The pilot project with DHHS is a great example of the types of outcomes that can be achieved when employers are prepared to think differently, changing their mindset about how they can engage the talents of autistic and neurodiverse employees in the workplace to achieve valuable outcomes for both the employer and the employees,” CEO at Specialisterne Australia, Julie Robertson, said.

“We are very excited to continue to partner and work with Victorian State Government and other businesses to enable greater employment and career pathways for people on the spectrum who are commonly disadvantaged through traditional recruitment processes.”

Speaking on the recommendations from the report, Dr Rebecca Flower said that workplaces need to prioritise diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.

“If you have individuals from minority groups, such as autistic individuals, review your hiring processes, you might find there are barriers you were unaware of that are preventing willing and able employees working for your organisation,”, Dr Flower said

“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.”

Funding for the research was provided by DHHS and by an Engagement Income Growth Grant from La Trobe’s School of Psychology and Public Health.

Media contact: Dragana Mrkaja – 0447 508 171 –