How can we address the issues of unemployment and underemployment of autistic young people, through helping individuals take more control of their career choices and find work opportunities aligned with their strengths?
An empowering platform for autistic young people, that gives them the ability and confidence to map their future, and provides carers, employers and schools with an invaluable input for career path development.
This is the story of myWAY Employability, a career pathway tool for autistic young people. Over a third of autistic people are unemployed and only a quarter attain post-school qualifications. The premise of myWAY Employability is to enable self-determination in young people as they prepare to step into their working life. It does this by matching an individual’s profile to career, training and education pathways. It helps them see possibilities, it encourages them to dream and it gives them the confidence to make it happen.
For disadvantaged communities, workplace doors may be frequently found to be more closed than open. The statistics tell us this is likely the case for those on the autism spectrum. Unemployment and underemployment rates for this cohort reveal an uncomfortable truth: there are barriers to autistic young people finding work.
Enter Autism CRC, a partner backed by Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good Challenge program and driven to empower autistic people to use their strengths and realise their potential. Based on six years of foundational research, they arrived at the conclusion that self-determination is key to improving autistic young people’s employment prospects. So, Autism CRC set out to create a service to encourage and enable this cohort to make informed choices and take definitive action around their own career and education paths.
From the start, myWAY Employability has been designed for and with the autistic community. Initial research indicated that early engagement would be key to establishing a truly relevant service that could factor for a literal spectrum of user requirements. And so, myWAY Employability was developed via a collaboration between Autism CRC and Curtin University that involved more than 300 people (including young people aged 14–30), parents, allied health professionals, disability service providers and educators. A collaborative Human-Centred Design approach, built on learnings and skills imparted by the Tech4Good Challenge’s educational phases, helped the team to explore needs and preferences, identify potential solutions and develop the concept that became myWAY Employability.
A commitment to evidence-based co-design, that gathers such a numerous and varied group of problem-solvers, necessarily creates some challenges. Foremost of which was how to forge a unified sense of team. From an initiative that started with two people–Cheryl Mangan and Marina Ciccarelli – the core team was rapidly expanded to bring in key skillsets. The priority though was to find people aligned with Autism CRC’s values.
Human-Centred Design also involves ongoing feedback, constant critique and iteration. With ups and downs and twists and turns to navigate, the team realised they had to become comfortable with ambiguity. It became essential to call this out and to encourage the team to feel safe to work through it together with open communication. And so, simple mantras such as “There are no stupid questions” created the conditions for success as much as any innovative technology.
“We sought people and partners aligned with our values and who would be able to work towards the goal effectively. This created an essential culture of trust and enabled us to learn from autistic young people together.”
-Cheryl Mangan, Autism CRC
Fast-forward to August 6, 2020 and myWAY Employability was launched as a web platform. Unlike other career planning services designed for the general population, it enables a personalised profile to be matched with relevant career information, resources and pathways. It then provides a springboard for goal-setting and action planning. This is a huge leap forward for autistic job-seekers: myWAY helps young people with big dreams to break them down into manageable tasks and make meaningful progress.
With the service currently live, the team is keeping community feedback front-and-centre. Since launch they have requested weekly feedback from users; most has been overwhelmingly positive, and the team has proactively responded to critical feedback about usability by minor “tweaks” or refinements in the user experience and functionality.
And what of the impact? To date, myWAY has over 1,100 registered users. It has also reached over 10,000 unique visitors with 81,000 page views and an average session time of 4 minutes. Current anecdotal evidence indicates positive responses to the service from employment seekers, families, schools and community organisations. Deeper user insights are being collected and prioritised for development whilst exploration of additional features continues in an inclusive, human-centred way.
“This is a wonderful initiative that I firmly believe will be a gamechanger. I would like to see funding provided for you to expand to the employment and disability sectors supporting post-school people on the spectrum. Great real-life examples and has left me full of new hope for my children on the spectrum.”
-Parent of young autistic person
Where to from here? On 30 March 2021, Federal Gov’t announced a $6 million grant to the organisation, with part of the funding pointed at improving the pathways for autistic people from school to employment. The realisation of myWAY in its current form is paving the way for further funding, which will enable Autism CRC to embed the service more systemically in school transition planning practices and inclusive HR approaches.