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The Autism Academy: Universities and Companies finding New Opportunities for Special Talents

The Autism Academy: Universities and Companies finding New Opportunities for Special Talents

Hania Syed & Peter Binks, BHERT

This article appeared in FORGE MAGAZINE: Available from newsagents from April 2019.

Download the article: Autism Academy in the Press

In just three short years, a dedicated team from Curtin University has helped address a major IT industry challenge - and turned the perception of autism on its head. Led by the quietly impressive Professor Tele Tan, a Singapore-trained software engineer, and supported by a diverse group of business leaders, the Autism Academy has achieved outstanding results by equipping a group of students to become highly-sought-after employees in ICT. The Autism Academy is now poised to take its outstanding program across Australia, creating opportunities and adding invaluable talent to the workforce. 

Over the last decade, with the increasing digitalisation of the Australian economy, companies have faced significant challenges in recruiting key staff adept in working with software and internet-based activities.  In particular, the Australian ICT industry faces challenges in attracting and retaining software testers within the sector.

At the same time, thousands of Australians face significant barriers to employment due to a disability or disorder. Around 3,000 young people with autism complete secondary school in Australia each year, many of whom face grim employment prospects. 25% of young people with autism discontinue studying after leaving high school, compared to 3% for those without autism. Individuals on the autism spectrum are over-represented in unemployment statistics, with only 41% of autistic Australian adults employed. Of those that are employed, many work in low-skill or low-wage jobs despite their high-level education. Few get the opportunity to demonstrate their exceptional intellectual or creative talents.

Individuals on the autism spectrum often demonstrate an aptitude for programming, IT and mathematics: skills that are in notoriously short supply in Australia. However, autistic individuals can find it difficult to perform in interviews or adapt to an office culture. Recruiting firms are also hesitant to take on employees with autism.  

Curtin’s AASQA - not just a social Initiative 

Curtin University’s Dr Tele Tan saw an opportunity for change in 2015. Dr Tan took inspiration from Specialisterne, a Danish company that created a successful strengths-based approach for supporting individuals on the autism spectrum to secure employment in the IT area. Dr Tan decided to explore how this model could be adapted for the Western Australian context – where the demand for software testing and other specialist IT skills is strong.

Curtin University established AASQA - the Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance - as a tangible mechanism for developing pathways to gainful employment for those with autism. At the same time, Dr Tan recognised the opportunities contained within the challenges faced by the Australian ICT industry.  He and the team at the Curtin Autism Research Centre believed those industry challenges could be addressed from a unique angle by tapping into the talents of those on the spectrum. 

AASQA has two major components.  Its core is a training academy which trains and certifies software inspectors with autism.  This is complemented by an enterprise unit which provides graduates of the Academy with employment opportunities. This business model meets the evolving needs of the software testing industry while also challenging the perception of and opportunities available to those with autism.

AASQA: industry orientation from inception

The Academy takes a three-pronged approach to its program development, involving outreach to high school students, training and education support in ICT discipline areas, and creation of work experience opportunities through internships.

AASQA has always worked closely with industry.  Commencing with scholarships in 2015 in collaboration with the Australian Computer Society Foundation, the Academy has partnered with several significant industry bodies, initially in Western Australia. In 2016, Bankwest piloted scholarships for two interns, with more interns added in subsequent years. Since then, five other companies have committed to the AASQA program, most notably BHP which now has 30 internship places for autistic talent. 

The Academy has grown at an extraordinary rate.  Today, 55 volunteer mentors allow the Academy to train 160 high school, vocational and undergraduate students in coding, automation, software quality assurance and work experience. Over $1.1 million has been raised in funding, and powerful partnerships are thriving with BHP, BankWest, Deloitte Australia, the Ian Potter Foundation, Bennelong Foundation, Rotary, and rerisk.

ANZ is the latest major company to specifically recruit those with autism, with nine new employees starting work earlier this year. Researchers from La Trobe University are also involved in the program, with autism researcher Professor Cheryl Dissanayake noting that many autistic individuals excel at cyber security: “The attention to detail, the looking for detailed information, for variations in code, is critical”, she said. 

AASQA volunteers are integral to the program's success

Growth potential

As the software industry continues to expand, so does the potential for hiring young people with special skills. Dr Tan has ambitious plans to make AASQA a national initiative, and is supported by industry partners such as BHP in these efforts. AASQA is continuing to partner with diverse companies, and creating further opportunities for those with autism for employment and growth.   “As businesses continue to adopt digital transformation strategies to enhance their operations, we are already seeing a huge demand for specialists with skills like Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Automation in Australia. AASQA have begun working with these industry partners to expand the training and skills development programs to include these emerging areas”, Dr Tan said. 

The impact of AASQA is also inspiring the establishment of other programs for industries that have similar barriers to entry, or for other conditions that prevent people from finding work.   For example, the oil and gas Industry has approached AASQA in 2019 to provide insights that may be useful for their industry in Australia, specifically relating to the recruitment of people on the autism spectrum.

Rethinking disability - and supporting industry growth

The AASQA initiative has important insights for Australian industry and for education.  It demonstrates what can be achieved when we change the perception of those with disabilities or disorders, and start to recognise the strengths they have and the contributions they are capable of making. By maximising the potential of individuals with special talents or abilities, AASQA is causing a game-changing shift in the workforce, benefitting all those that are involved.  

The efforts of Curtin University and AASQA also powerfully illustrate the benefit of collaboration, demonstrating what can be achieved when businesses and universities partner to tackle common barriers or opportunities.

BHERT perspective 

The Autism Academy is an outstanding business model, set within a progressive university. AASQA has achieved substantial national recognition, including as a winner of a prestigious BHERT Award for collaboration between business and universities in 2018.  The importance of its model is the matching of the needs of the growing software testing industry to the unique talents of those on the autism spectrum. More generally, it is a superb demonstration of the ways in which businesses from sectors as different as resources (BHP), finance (BankWest, ANZ) and STEM outreach (CoderDojo) are working with Australian universities on unique and challenging problems.

Driving collaboration across business, industry and tertiary education.

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