Despite having strong qualifications and talent, young people and adults with autism struggle to find any work, and the consequences can be devastating. Organisations trying to help are dealing with an unemployment rate of 65 per cent for adults on the autism spectrum.
Max Rogerson hasn’t been this happy in years.
In February, the 25-year-old launched a personal blog that explores what it’s like living with Asperger syndrome and OCD, a symptom of his autism.
The quality of his work opened up volunteer opportunities for him with Aspergers Victoria and the I CAN Network – a support group for young people with autism. But as rewarding as his new roles are, Rogerson is yet to secure paid employment 14 months after graduating from university.
Underlying this newfound satisfaction is an element of unease surrounding his reliance on Centrelink to pay the rent.
About 130,000 Australians live with Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. While research in this field has placed great emphasis on early intervention measures for young children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), research focused on adults who make up 75 per cent of the autistic population is still in its early stages.
The majority of adults on the spectrum – 65 per cent – are unemployed, compared to 6 per cent of the general population. This is higher than the overall unemployment rates for people with a disability.
“I know I was put on the planet to write,” Rogerson said. “If I could find any form of part-time writing work I would jump on it.”
Early last year the Commonwealth Government defunded smaller service providers such as Alpha Autism (AA) with regards to supporting people with an ASD in their transition into the workplace, in favour of larger generalist providers.
But AA CEO Wendy Sturgess says these bodies are often not equipped with specialist knowledge of the diverse autism spectrum.
“These young adults need more long-term, practical-based programs and they need people who understand autism. A recent Australian study called We Belong supports that,” Sturgess says.
“We’ve invested in the early years and that’s been very well deserved. But to gain a true recovery from that investment, we’re going to need to get more ongoing support to help these people move on to the next stage in their lives.
“And there’s no doubt about it, there will be a continuing and significant increase in people with autism seeking employment.”
Sturgess stresses the transition into the workforce is a high-risk time for young people on the spectrum, who can get caught up in the criminal justice system and sometimes in the mental health system if their anxieties rise as a result of exclusion from the workforce.
Alison, 44, expressed her frustration in the We Belong study: “I hate looking stupid. It’s the one thing I’m not. I hate having something valuable to say, but no one listens because I can’t get it out. I hate feeling like I am walking in the sand but leave no footprints so there is no evidence I was ever here at all.”
Ascot Vale-based psychologist Kevin O’Neill has two children on the spectrum and specialises in consulting with adults and adolescents with autism. He says young people with autism are vulnerable to becoming housebound during this difficult transition.
“It is definitely a critical period. They can become very isolated and it can get to the point where their situation becomes all-consuming,” O’Neill says.
“The group of 18-to-25-year-olds are particularly high risk because they may not complete their courses or have no work experience to build on. It’s difficult if they’re also lacking in the social connections that can often open up job opportunities.
“The more they withdraw, the harder it gets for them to break that cycle of staying at home.”
He consults with a range of people, some with ongoing or part-time jobs and others who have never been employed. In his experience, the most common difficulties they face are those of developing interpersonal skills, maintaining themselves in the workplace, difficulties in performing task-oriented work and handling themselves in group settings.
“I think a lot of employers may be thinking, ‘Why take the risk? Why should I employ someone on the spectrum who is going to encounter all these difficulties in the work environment?’,” he says.
“Sure, they might not understand office politics, but they are very loyal and very honest. They can also be highly focused on individual, niche tasks. They would make very valuable employees and if your workplace has space, they will be there for a long time and turn up every day.”
At Aspergers Victoria, Rogerson has taken on a role in facilitating monthly young adult meetings. People on the spectrum and friends and family gather to talk about coping strategies, how to make the most of their skills and share one another’s experiences and advice.
After he graduated – with a degree in social sciences and diploma in journalism – he lined up a position as a movie reviewer, but it fell through. He felt as though he had never been taught how to go about the process of job hunting and that his academic life had failed to properly equip him with the practical skills that are assumed on reaching adulthood.
Through the Employment Support Services, (ESS) under the Disability Employment Services (DES), the Government funds about 140 organisations that help people obtain employment.
A Department of Social Services spokesperson said an expected $1 billion will be spent each year on DES by 2016. Over the next four years, over $3.85 billion will be invested in providing open employment opportunities for people with a disability. It is difficult, however, to pinpoint how much of this funding will reach those with autism specifically.
Kathy Havers, Catalyst Financial Group director and financial planner, consults with a wide variety of families and also has a 16-year-old son on the spectrum.
She says the main obstacle is educating workplaces about accommodating someone with an ASD and raising awareness about how much difference employment can make to their lives.
“If unable to earn an income, 18-year-olds have the option of seeking a disability support pension which is about $17,000 per annum and that turns into a full adult pension of about $22,000 once they’ve turned 21. So it’s pretty hard for anyone to live on that sort of money, certainly independently. It’s a meagre amount,” Havers says.
“Other options for young people are to apply for youth allowance or funding through the Futures For Young Adults support package.
“At my workplace, we take on kids … I see my staff getting as much out of it as the young people do coming in to do work experience.”
Rogerson remains optimistic one of his volunteer positions may lead to a paid job in the future. They have enabled him to forge some good friendships and it has been a huge boost to his self-esteem.
He said some of the most talented people he knows are on the spectrum and feels it is such a waste for them to be without work.
“From a pure economic stand point, we could be leasing out this massive pool of talent in our jobs market. It’s terrible because 66 per cent of them may not ever get to feel useful or discover how great they are,” Rogerson says.
“Instead of employers looking at it as a liability, we should look at some of the advantages that come from being on the spectrum. Some people have an encyclopaedic knowledge of a certain subject or a photographic memory. If we can highlight those strengths and place them in the kinds of jobs where they’ll really be able to leverage those strengths, I think that’s when people on the spectrum will really be able to shine.”
*Max Rogerson’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
Originally published at Mojo News.
*Young Walkley Awards: Finalist nomination.
*Report It Right Competition: Runner-up prize for Disability Reporting.