AI-based resumé scanners are routinely rejecting neurodivergent job applicants that might have the right skills but struggle to represent them to employers, a neurodivergent advocate has noted, as a new partnership delivers a more equitable method of testing those skills.

With 31.6 per cent of Australia’s neurodiverse population currently unemployed and 45 per cent of autistic people reporting that they are underemployed – working in roles that require fewer skills than they possess – employers haven’t been getting the most out of their neurodivergent workers, Aron Mercer, chief growth officer with advocacy firm Xceptional, told Information Age.

“Autistic people often aren’t great self-promoters,” he explained. “They can interpret job descriptions and language in an interview literally, and so it takes them longer for their true self and their skills to show.”

One attendee at an Xceptional workshop in Sydney, he recalled, had lodged 740 different job applications and still hadn’t managed to secure a role.

Even among those neurodivergent workers who do secure a job, underemployment has proven particularly challenging given that the skills are out there – but other issues are preventing them from being made available to tech employers.

“We’ve got businesses screaming out for talent,” Mercer said, “and meanwhile we’ve got doctors and lawyers who are driving buses and working part time in retail. They just can’t get into tech.”

Since 2017, Xceptional has been placing neurodivergent workers into software testing and other tech roles requiring skills such as pattern matching and attention to detail.

Over the past two years, Mercer said, the firm – which was recognised early on with a significant grant under the Google Impact Challenge – had been developing a formal way of evaluating candidates’ skills so they could be more easily matched with job roles.

The company’s skills assessment technology includes a range of puzzle-based challenges that allow prospective employers to evaluate candidates’ problem-solving strategies – and then use the results to match their demonstrated skills against the skills involved in a range of tech roles.

With more than 25,000 assessments under its belt, Xceptional has demonstrated the specificity of the testing instrument – which has been reviewed by academics and works well enough that 92 per cent of placed candidates are still in their jobs a year later.

“Candidates are telling us that they prefer this way of interviewing, and that it helps employers understand how their mind works,” Mercer said. “Having actually had a chance to demonstrate skills by having done puzzles online, that builds their confidence.”

Helping candidates to shine

Engaging neurodiverse candidates in familiar terms allows them a better chance to portray their strengths to employers than conventional AI-based applicant screening platforms that are “weeding them out of the process.”

Those systems are “weeding out gaps in CVs, or that they haven’t had the right job titles,” Mercer continued.

Candidates “are not putting the right keywords and phrases on their cover letter, or they’ve got gaps in their CV, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he continued.

“If you’ve got someone who is self-taught, didn’t finish uni, and has been doing some bill-paying jobs, you’re instantly on the cutting room floor.”

Aiming to counter this effect – and to help neurodiverse employees find roles they can be hired for – Xceptional has this week partnered with human resources technology firm Testgrid to expand the use of the methodology.

The availability of a standardised method for evaluating neurodiverse candidates’ skills made a partnership appealing for both firms, said Testgrid chief operating officer Will Ainsley.

“I have been shocked by the level of unemployment and underemployment amongst neurodiverse people, even in the current tight labour market,” Ainsley said.

“Our clients are constantly saying that they cannot find the number of candidates that they are used to, and it is significantly increasing their hiring time and costs.”

“I believe that those organisations who can think differently and take this opportunity will be streets ahead.”

Importantly, Mercer said, the skills assessment program had been developed by Xceptional designers, software engineers, and quality assurance testers who were themselves autistic.

“The autistic people in our team have got such a thoroughness, but also an understanding of what has not worked for them in an assessment process before,” he explained.

“Prior to coming to our team, all of them were either underemployed or unemployed – so they’ve got that lived experience of being on the other side of applications that are not working for them – and they’ve designed a process that does work.”