Helping people with autism gain access to the jobs market

Social enterprise Specialisterne matches individuals to available roles

Two out of three working-age people with a disability are unemployed in Ireland, according to a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) published in 2021. And, in 2018, Ireland had the fourth lowest employment rate among people with a disability of working age in the European Union. Other researchers have found that a person with a disability has an 85 per cent chance of being unemployed or underemployed by working in a job that underutilises their skills or abilities.

So, how can we improve opportunities for these individuals who according to the ESRI, represent about 11 per cent of the population?

Specialisterne is one organisation which works with people with autism, dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD to help them gain access to the jobs market.

Set up in 2013 the social enterprise matches individuals to available roles, offering them interview skills training and then continued support in the workplace if they succeed in getting a job. "We originally started looking for talent for the IT industry and then realised that other sectors needed similar supports so we stretched out to other areas of employment," explains Peter Brabazon, founder of Specialisterne Ireland, which was adapted from the original Danish organisation, Specialisterne Foundation.


Brabazon and his team of 12 employees work with companies across the financial, scientific, technology and engineering sectors to recruit people with autism while supporting those candidates in seeking and maintaining their jobs.

“Most of us have someone with a disability in our families so more and more companies are making statements to be inclusive to people with disabilities in their diversity and inclusion programmes,” says Brabazon. Specialisterne also works with the disability and placement services in third level colleges, supporting students in the transition to employment.”

Neurodiversity model

Neurodivergent people experience, interact with and interpret the world in unique ways. The neurodiversity model views brain differences of people with ADHD, autism, dyslexia and dyspraxia not as something to be cured but as something to be accepted and worked with.

“People who are neurodivergent are hard-working and loyal but they may need certain accommodations in the workplace to support them with social shyness or managing noisy canteens,” says Brabazon.

Richard Hughes is a manager of a support team at the international software company SAP. He says that having someone with autism on the team can actually be an advantage for the team. "It helps us bond and look after each other as a team. And any accommodations that have to be made – for example, wearing a tracksuit instead of a shirt and jeans – filters through to the rest of the team," says Hughes.

He is, however, aware of the need to adapt his communication style for these workers. “With the guys in the autism-at-work programme, communications from me to them and from them to me is a little bit more direct. Sarcasm won’t land in the same way so we have to be aware and clear with communications on important topics,” he says.

Hughes says employees who have come to SAP via Specialisterne are passionate about technology. “They are great at trouble-shooting and debugging. And because they really understand how it works, they are good at solving problems in real time with customers. Their tech communications is at such a high standard that their directness with customers is something people like.”

Regular communication

Martin Farrell, who works for SAP, first came into contact with Specialisterne when he was studying for his BA in computer games development at the Institute of Technology in Carlow.

“I’ve been working remotely for SAP for eight months now so I’ve never been at the Dublin campus. It’s based on trust. I’m expected to be at work from 8am-4pm but we have regular communications and scheduled meetings during the day,” explains Farrell, who has autism.

He says that Specialisterne helped him get the job by preparing him well for interviews and he continues to have weekly contact (or more if he needs it) with a Specialisterne staff member.

“I would have fallen down at the interview without their support. [describing] the skills that I have – which the employer was looking for – would have gone over my head because they were things that I take for granted. Also, I’m very meticulous about getting things done on time and I would never have mentioned that.”

Brabazon says that it’s important to brief both managers and co-workers about any little quirks these new employees might have. “Someone with autism mightn’t look you in the eye at an interview or they might yawn, so we brief management that this doesn’t mean they aren’t interested.” Voluntary buddies are then recruited in the workplace to help deal with any unexpected or stressful scenarios.

From 2019 to 2021, Specialisterne benefited from funding from the Ability Programme, which was a Government/EU led initiative to help young people with disabilities aged between 15 and 29 improve their access to the labour market. The current programmes are supported by the dormant accounts fund, managed by Pobal. And, the Government’s commitment to a wage subsidy support scheme for all employees with disabilities working between 21 and 39 hours per week is another incentive.

“It’s a gradual process. Giving people with autism access to jobs requires a paradigm shift in terms of mindset but there are lead companies which have policies to get to 1 per cent of staff with autism,” adds Brabazon.