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Professor Tan with students. Photo: Curtin University

Curtin, boosting employment for teens with autism, seeks collaborators

Despite Hollywood’s (increasing) portrayal of brilliantly successful autistic savants – from Rain Man to The Good Doctor – the reality of employment for those with autism is the opposite. ABS data suggests just 40 per cent of people with autism work, compared to 83 per cent of the general population. Only up to 10 per cent of people with autism are savants – those who are brilliant in a niche area yet are impaired in other ways.

While there has been a shift in viewing autism as a deficit to seeing it as a strength – especially in regards to employment – there has been little research on what constitutes a ‘strength-based approach’ to the disorder. With a new Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre report, this is set to change.

‘A Strength-Based Program for Adolescents with Autism’, authored by Curtin professor Tele Tan, reviews the evidence, and, from there, proposes guidelines for this approach. In particular, the guidelines outline how teens with autism can be prepared for careers in the information and communications technology (ICT) field.

Tan is also the co-founder of the Autism Academy for Software Quality Assurance – a strength-based program that helps get teens with autism into the ICT workforce. Now, he is looking for academic collaborators to extend the program beyond Western Australia. “I’m an engineer, but we need therapists too … We work with health science, occupational therapy, psychology, speech therapy, and visual therapy professionals too,” he said.

Since the two main diagnostic criteria for autism are ‘deficits in social interaction’ and ‘restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities’, what makes those with autism specifically suited to ICT careers? Campus Review began by asking Tan just that.

Cindy van der Walt’s 19-year-old son, Christopher, participated in Tan’s program. Once solely sports-obsessed, after starting the program, his focus quickly shifted to coding, robotics and the like. “He loves it … He said, ‘For the first time, I feel like I belong’,” van der Walt said.

Before the program, she didn’t think he would ever have a career. Now, not only is he planning to complete a Certificate IV in IT; after two years, he plans to study engineering at Curtin University.

Christopher’s biggest transformation, however, has been in his personality. Previously, Christopher was so aggressive that van der Walt feared for her younger son’s life. “His social skills were so bad that he didn’t go out.”

“[Now] it’s like he’s a new child. He’s no longer aggressive. He is smiling – he never used to smile. He’s even laughing and making jokes.”

Recently, Christopher attended two comics and gaming conventions – and even dressed up.

“When my parents came to visit, they couldn’t believe he was the same child…

“This program is fantastic.”

It is estimated that around 0.6 per cent of Australians have autism.

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