Gordan Douglas struggled to find work because of his “differences”. Now his neurodiversity is making him a sought-after employee.
Gordon Douglas spent most of his 20s on welfare, struggling to find an employer who would look past his “differences” and give him a break.
The 34-year-old battled his way through job application after job application but, despite being highly qualified and intelligent, he often fell out of contention when it came to face-to-face interviews.
His problem, he said, was misreading social cues and interview panels that didn’t know how to interpret his quirks.
“There are still those biases that play into it,” Mr Douglas said.
“‘Oh, this guy doesn’t make eye contact, so we couldn’t possibly trust him to do any work for us’.
“It’s been brought up with me several times in exit interviews.”
Now he’s in a top-secret role with the same government agency which supported him through years of jobseeker payments Services Australia in a ground-breaking program that recruits people on the autism spectrum.
“There was only one job I wanted, and I was the first pick for it, so, great!” Mr Douglas said.
Services Australia spokesman Hank Jongen said the agency had been actively recruiting people on the spectrum for five years.
“They bring us highly desirable skills they’re in data analysis, they’re in programming, they require attention to detail,” Mr Jongen said.
“We encourage diversity across the spectrum. We are always looking for opportunities as a model employer, and we keep an open mind.”
Nick Burleigh struggled with traditional recruitment processes before landing his job at Services Australia.(ABC News)
Nick Burleigh, 25, was recruited through the same program and now works in another secure role with Services Australia.
“I can’t really go into the nitty-gritty details, but generally what we’re doing is looking for data science solutions to identifying fraud cases,” Mr Burleigh said.
“People who are on the spectrum do tend to be more rule-oriented, more punctual.
“Especially with this data type role, where there is a heavy reliance on that coding and understanding the logic, I do feel like there is an advantage there for us.”
But, like Gordon, Nick had the same frustrations in negotiating traditional recruitment processes.
“I kind of get to the video interview, and then after that is when my problems happen,” he said.
“You get into a room with somebody then you kind of go into panic mode. It turns into a bit of a mess.”
Big end of town seeking ‘autism advantage’
Both Gordon and Nick came to Services Australia through the recruitment firm Specialisterne, which works with neurodiverse jobseekers and matches them to willing employers.
And Specialisterne executive Jason White said “the big end of town” was coming around to what some call the “autism advantage”.
“I think the autism advantage is having complex brains that can solve really complex problems,” Mr White said.
“One of the main [characteristics] that we often come across, is people who have different ways of interpreting information. And you get different solutions to problems that you could never solve before.”
Nick says people on the autism spectrum often have an advantage when it comes to data-related roles.(ABC News)
Traditionally, that has seen neurodiverse workers placed in IT jobs such as coding.
“We know that IT roles are only going to be suited to a selected part of the population that are into working in IT, and that’s not everybody,” Mr White said.
“So our greatest challenge moving forward is to find those other types of roles that people on the spectrum will find careers in.”
Specialisterne said that banks and large corporations, as well as government agencies like Services Australia, were realising the benefits in hiring people on the autism spectrum.
“We work with the top end of town, who get this. They’re not doing this because it’s the right thing to do, they’re doing it because it’s the smart thing to do,” Mr White said.
“Employers are starting to turn their attention to neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.”
Traditional recruitment practices need to change
Mr White said that while employers were keen to hire neurodiverse workers, traditional recruitment practices just didn’t work.
“Some of the barriers that autistic jobseekers face go back to the way typical job ads are presented, they often use quite ambiguous language, and don’t often tell the jobseeker what the employer’s looking for,” Mr White said.
“Things like having to go through a job interview with a stranger and give the best account of yourself in a very short space of time can be very very difficult for most of us, but people on the spectrum can find it incredibly difficult.
“It’s not difficult to make reasonable adjustments to your recruitment process, to be more accessible, to be more available, to autistic candidates.”
For Gordon and Nick, finding an open-minded employer who’ll embrace their differences has been a revelation.
“Whatever the opposite of bullying is, that’s what I’ve experienced here,” Gordon said.