The Dandelion Program

Untapped potential is a terrible waste—and it’s a sad reality for many people with autism. But thanks to Dandelion, a program for on-boarding autistic people into competitive jobs, the door to opportunity is opening.

Dandelion was established by Denmark’s Specialisterne, a pioneering employment enabler with a goal of providing one million jobs to people on the autism spectrum. In Australia, Hewlett Packard Enterprise is partnering with Specialisterne and the Australian Department of Human Services to bring this inventive program to life.

“A dandelion is seen as a weed if in an unwanted place,” says Specialisterne Founder Thorkil Sonne. “But if you take that plant to a wanted place you’ll see it as an herb and as one of the most valuable plants in nature. That’s what we’re doing. We’re putting people in places where they are welcomed and where they can excel.”

Dandelion is revolutionising employment diversity. “People on the autism spectrum often have excellent skills that lend themselves very naturally to jobs that require focus—including their attention to detail, and their ability to think differently and recognise patterns,” says Michael Fieldhouse, Director, Emerging Businesses and Federal Government, Hewlett Packard Enterprise Australia.

“But sadly, many encounter obstacles finding employment because they don’t do well in standard job interviews. In Australia, fully half of people with autism are unemployed, and those who do find work are often under-employed. These are brilliant people who have graduated with first class honors and master’s degrees in science and engineering. Now, through the Dandelion program, we’re building the ability to attract, hire and retain these high potential people in testing, analytics, IT operations and cyber security positions.”

To support the program, a new, multifaceted organization design has been created at HPE Australia that includes on-boarding, sustainment and job transition phases. It starts with a four-week assessment by Specialisterne Australia and HPE that tests candidates’ individual social skills, their comfort zone when working in teams, and their specialist skills. Candidates who are evaluated as high potential are offered employment subject to a standard probation period.

The program also supports the new employees with broader life-skills development, including courses on nutrition, how to navigate public transport, how to manage a personal budget and more.

Managers to whom the new hires will report, take part in a diversity training program developed by Specialisterne Australia and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which provides insights into working with people with autism.

Ongoing focus groups are held with the trainees to monitor their progress and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. “The sense of pride our new hires have in their work and in learning a new set of job skills is making an enormous difference in these people’s lives. And these benefits also extend to their families,” says Nick Wilson, Managing Director HPE South Pacific. “Parents have told us they feel like they’ve won the lottery—there’s a huge sense of relief and joy as they see their children become happier, more confident and independent. They noted that their social skills have improved, and that they’re participating more fully in family life as well. After seeing their children struggle for their entire lives, they are overjoyed to see them blossom.”

And the business benefits are just as real. Since the program launched in 2015, 37 highly skilled people have been hired—24 are now full-time employees and the rest are in training. The goal is to hire at least 70 people by the end of 2016. Based on the program’s success, HPE is considering expansion to other countries.

“We’re pleased to come together with Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Specialist People Foundation to bring the successful Dandelion Program to Australia, and provide traineeships in ICT to some very talented people with autism,” said a representative of Australia’s Department of Human Services. “This program demonstrates how the public and private sectors can work collaboratively to enable people with autism to realize their full potential in the workforce and contribute effectively to the market economy.

“The trainees are performing roles in ICT while developing valuable work skills in a professional environment, and they are working with their departmental colleagues to deliver systems that support the millions of Australians who use our services every day.”

The Dandelion program is also part of a research program being undertaken with the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University. “Charting the impact of employment on people on the autism spectrum within this unique program, as well as their families and coworkers, will be important in convincing other employers to offer similar opportunities to those with autism,” said Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, who is overseeing the research program.

“We’re very grateful to the Dandelion program for broadening our perspectives,” says Michael. “We’ve been thrilled to play a part in demonstrating the value for employers and giving these talented people the opportunities they deserve.”

Accelerating fairness and opportunity—that’s true Living Progress.

6 month Research Update

We are six months into our research on the Dandelion Program – an employment program initiated by Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, the Department of Human Services and Specialisterne Australia aimed at creating a pathway to meaningful employment for adults on the autism spectrum.

The program provides selected individuals with Autism a 3-year traineeship as a software tester. It includes significant workplace support for these individuals which is provided by someone with extensive experience in Autism Spectrum Disorders who works closely with the trainees. So far, the program has provided jobs to 38 adults with a diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Previous research has identified the many challenges adults on the autism spectrum face entering the workforce, backed up by the lived experiences of people with Autism. In particular, we know there are exceptionally high rates of unemployment and underemployment where, for example, individuals are placed in low level, unskilled and low paying jobs. It may be that human resource and employer focus on social aptitude and teamwork creates a barrier to employment of individuals with Autism. Indeed, over half of the employed adults on the spectrum who responded to a recent Australian survey indicated they needed support to find employment. Furthermore, around two-thirds of these same individuals also indicated that they would like support at work for their symptoms of Autism.

In our research, we are tracking the transition to work of the adults who have been selected for the Dandelion Program across three States in Australia. The research addresses a significant gap in the scientific literature concerning the transition to work and the effectiveness and benefits of employment programs that target adults on the spectrum.

We are looking at specific outcomes that include loneliness and social supports, quality of life, psychological wellbeing and mental health and also job satisfaction. While it is too early to say anything definitive about our finding so far as we are still collecting data, we can report some interesting preliminary trends.

Consistent with the research literature, although around 25% of job candidates had a TAFE diploma or Bachelor’s degree or higher, the unemployment rate in our sample was around 63%, with 34% of the total group engaged in unskilled, part-time work. In terms of transition to work, we have found that individuals employed in the program for 6 to 8 months are reporting fewer psychological concerns, including lower levels of anxiety and loneliness, improved social relations and a sense of belonging compared to individuals who have only just started in the program. The trainees also reported significantly higher levels of job satisfaction with the program compared to their previous jobs.

While these trends are promising, our primary research goal is to follow the teams over time to see if these improvements might be attributable to engagement in the program. We will continue to provide updates on further findings as they become available.