The Dandelion Program: Integrating autism in the workplace

Being on the autism spectrum can make it hard to fit into the workplace.

The labour force participation rate for people with autism is 42%. The rate of participation for people with any disability is 53%, and for those without disabilities, it’s 83%.

Fundamentally, this is because our workplace is built around the neurotypical person, someone without a disorder or disease. But many people with autism can work if given the right roles, training and support.

And this can be of huge benefit to the IT industry, where we face a number of skill shortages. Specialist positions are difficult to fill, and skilled individuals difficult to retain. It’s particularly challenging to staff roles that require repetitive tasks, challenging people’s concentration and attention to detail.

For example, software must be robustly tested prior to release to avoid catastrophic failures. Testing means thoroughly interrogating a piece of software in every conceivable way and documenting the results, a task that is simultaneously daunting and boring.

Enter the Dandelion Program, named in reference to the dandelion being both a weed and an herb, adapts the workplace for those on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. It finds a way to utilise these individuals’ unique skills. It is delivered in a partnership between the client, DXC and Specialisterne, a Danish company specialising in creating jobs for those with a disability.

The Model

Dandelion is delivered in discrete pods, consisting of dedicated support staff and a team of trainees, with more senior trainees helping develop new recruits. In Adelaide where we put this program to use, the original pod consisted of 11 trainees. The selection process aimed to identify those with average or above cognitive skills, particularly in areas such as pattern recognition and numerical reasoning. Below is an example of a testing pod.

With the ultimate goal of integrating individuals into the workforce, the program follows a three-year structure with increasing independence for trainees.

The program is supported by organisational initiatives, including autism awareness training to ensure that the neurotypical workforce is aware of the complexities and alterations needed to make the physical space accommodating to the needs of the trainees.

Results

Our program now includes 55 people on the spectrum, operating in the departments of Defence, Human Services and Immigration. It is also operating in diverse areas, from cybersecurity to data analytics to software testing.

The program has a 96% retention rate, much higher than the average for those on the spectrum. In another sign of success, a benefits realisation analysis conducted by PwC compared two individuals — one out of work and one Dandelion member. The out-of-work individual collected $16,838 a year in government benefits, well below the poverty line if he or she was living independently. By comparison, a Dandelion member earns $55,000, meaning a $28,740 net gain for the individual and $26,260 savings for the government.

Over their careers, participants could expect to accrue $1.7 million in salaries and savings to the government, versus if they hadn’t worked at all. It’s easy to see the value of such a program to all parties involved, which is why Specialisterne aims to create one million jobs following this model.

Of course, the most important beneficiaries are the Dandelions themselves, getting to contribute their unique skills to the workforce and move on to rewarding, engaging work.

RELATED LINKS

Learning from the veterans in our workplace

Career advice for soon-to-be graduates — and all of us, really

The changing Australian workplace

 

Comments

  1. Rob Blackburn says:

    What a great program. One of my sons is on the spectrum and I would love to help grow this program and provide opportunities for people like Myles

    Like

  2. Julie Palazini says:

    I love the depth of the support provided. I’d like to see it expanded across DXC.

    Like

  3. Donna Philp says:

    I have an aspie 24 year old son living in Busselton WA. Is there a program like this anywhere near us?

    Like

  4. I have an 18 year old son on the spectrum who loves computers. Do you have contact details so I could find out more about this program in Sydney.

    Like

  5. Hi Donna and Lisa, you can contact the Dandelion program through this link: http://www.dandelionprogram.com/contact/

    Like

  6. This is a good start. Many people with other-abilities would benefit from supported job transitions. https://www2.ed.gov/programs/rsasupemp/index.html #disability #advocacy #EEO

    Like

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