Neurodiverse break unemployment cycle

Programme helps 146 students and recent graduates secure employment, experience and training.

An innovative employment programme brings neurodiverse people into labour force

The programme, developed and delivered by Specialisterne Ireland and funded through the Ability Programme, has proven hugely successful in bringing young people with neurodivergent challenges closer to the labour market.

“Many neurodivergent people struggle to impress a potential employer because they have different ways of communicating their strengths”

As a result, 146 students and recent graduates, over the course of the three-year programme, have secured employment or gained experience and training opportunities.

Out of 146 candidates initially identified to be supported to gain experience and training opportunities, 71 are currently in employment, including students who secured internships and work placements. This was even more impressive because it was achieved while navigating the recruitment challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Employers include Johnson & Johnson Ireland and SAP Ireland.

Diversity profits all

Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits and views such conditions as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and dyspraxia/DCD as natural variance of the human brain rather than something to be cured. Neurodivergent people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in unique ways and can be a valuable asset to a company with research showing that teams with neurodiverse members are more productive.

Despite this, unemployment rates can be as high as 85% for some neurodivergent conditions.

Specialisterne Ireland worked closely with disability and career services in the higher education sector to identify individuals that would most benefit from the specially developed programme. A mix of colleges, universities and further education centres participated including IT Carlow, DCU, the National College of Ireland and Coláiste Dhúlaigh.

Candidates were supported on a one-to-one basis to develop the confidence to communicate their experience in preparation for interview and job applications. These sessions also provided support in the form of mock interviews and CV preparation.

A range of Irish employers, many of whom are dedicated to increasing their numbers of employees with disabilities through internal Diversity & Inclusion programmes, worked closely with Specialisterne Ireland to make roles available for these candidates.

Specialisterne then matched suitable graduates to available roles, and most importantly provided support to those employers after recruitment, thereby ensuring long-term secure employment for graduates with neurodivergent challenges.

“This programme has shown the success of a dedicated recruitment stream to help graduates with neurodivergent conditions find opportunities and transition to employment after college,” said Peter Brabazon, Specialisterne Ireland CEO.

“Unfortunately, many neurodivergent graduates fall through the cracks, even with in-demand third level qualifications, we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Speaking about their engagement with Specialisterne Ireland, Clodagh Blighe, Senior HRBP and Diversity & Inclusion Lead, SAP Ireland said: “At SAP Ireland we partner with Specialisterne to hire neurodiverse candidates for our global Autism at Work Programme. At SAP we truly believe that hiring individuals with autism makes us a better company and drives innovation within our organisation. We are thrilled that our programme is growing year on year and going from strength to strength. Individuals from the SAP Autism at Work Programme are working in 25+ different roles across the world.”

A bridge between education and employment

Specialisterne Ireland carried out research based on survey data collection with all participating graduates, and in 2020, two years into the programme, candidates reported increases in communication, independence and confidence. Establishing effective communication systems between autistic or neurodivergent people and ‘neurotypical’ staff members is a key challenge around inclusive employment. Providing a bridge between education, employment and training affects all aspects of a candidate’s life, demonstrating the ongoing impact of the Ability Programme.

“Many neurodivergent people struggle to impress a potential employer because they have different ways of communicating their strengths,” Brabazon said.

“A typical interview process unconsciously places barriers around that. For example, some candidates may avoid sustaining eye contact when they are carefully thinking through an answer to an interview question. We help employers learn that this can be a sign of concentration instead of assuming it means disinterest. We share techniques for fairer communication and evaluation systems with both employers and candidates.”

He concluded: “We have really enjoyed working with candidates to see them achieve their full potential and overcome the difficulties of the traditional recruitment barriers, and we wish them all the best with their careers.

“Our plan is to continue working with the third-level sector to target graduates at this stage in their career and break the unemployment cycle that has been with us for too long.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.