The desire to create a better world for his autistic son and a professional breakthrough came together to lead HR specialist David Smith to make great strides for inclusive, neurodiverse recruitment.

A lightbulb moment

When David Smith sat down to watch the British version of the popular documentary Employable Me, he didn’t know it would influence a considerable shift in his career. Moreover, he didn’t realise that the change would result in dozens of people with a disability finding satisfying, sustainable jobs.

It was 2016, and he had travelled to the United Kingdom to complete the prestigious Advanced Management and Leadership Program at Oxford University.

David Smith, second from left with graduates of Oxford Business Advanced Management Program


“The management program made you think about what your social purpose is,” Mr Smith said.

“Then, once you have defined it, you have to think about how you can link it back to your business to drive competitive advantage – that’s when the penny dropped for me.”

David’s youngest son is autistic, and the chance combination of his study at Oxford, his recent professional experiences and watching Employable Me brought him to a realisation.

“I knew that I wanted to continue in recruitment, because that’s what I’ve done for 20 years, but something with autism – because if I didn’t help my son find employment, who else is going to?”

Ideas become innovation

Once he returned to his hometown of Canberra, David began to see how he could put his study and his ideas into practice. He was already working with a large, established HR firm and had some experience placing candidates with a disability, but he wanted to do more.

“Having had a long career in recruitment, I think I understand the sector and its strengths and weaknesses. Plus, I understood from my son something of the autistic perspective,” Mr Smith said.

After working to build a national inclusion program within his organisation in partnership with workforce neurodiversity pioneers Specialisterne, David decided that he would devote himself to specialist recruitment full time starting his boutique firm, Employ For Ability.

“I’m just happy I’m working on things I love, and I’m helping people make a difference,” Mr Smith said.

“Organisations are moving the conversation away from ‘we’re doing this for inclusion and diversity reasons’ to ‘these people are amazing; can we have some more please?’”

Making inclusive recruitment work for your business

So, how can businesses begin to access these skilled and committed talent pools? David Smith recommends finding the right hiring process for your organisation’s size and budget.

While larger private organisations and government departments may benefit from the economies of scale that come from running assessment centres, small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) can adapt the same principles by utilising job trials and other low-pressure assessment methods.

“It’s about trying to skill up organisations, so they can use the methodology themselves,” said Mr Smith.

“It’s also about supporting both candidates and businesses, which is why using an assessment centre or job trial works so well. It gives organisations a chance to trial candidates and to see their strengths. Candidates also get the chance to see if they’re comfortable with the role.”

David Smith’s advice, particularly when looking to accommodate neurodiverse candidates is to look for alternatives to a formal interview process.

“Don’t do an interview, if possible. If you can’t do an assessment centre, see if you can do a trial or a simulation.”

Inclusion benefits in action

The methods David Smith employs have been remarkably successful, not just in terms of placing people with a disability – his candidates have far exceeded mainstream recruitment averages for retention and job performance.

“With the Specialisterne methodology, after 12 months, we’re sitting at 96% of the candidates who are still in their new roles – and we placed about 230 people using that method in the last two years,” Mr Smith said.

“That’s a phenomenal rate of retention. In recruitment generally, if 50% of placements stay for 12 months, you’re happy, because people move around or simply don’t work out.”

“So, when you tell organisations about this 90% retention rate, they don’t believe you – but then the organisations that follow the program and implement a pilot all say ‘this is great – can we have some more please?’”

But it’s not just retention that’s drawing employers to inclusive hiring. By using a more nuanced methodology to place candidates into jobs where they might have existing strengths, David Smith has had consistent feedback that his candidates often outperform their neurotypical co-workers.

“These candidates stay, and they perform,” Mr Smith said.

Safety monitoring company Seeing Machines has benefited hugely from utilising these methods in hiring and retaining staff.

“Seeing Machines used a simulation model, which worked well for them,” Mr Smith said.

“They brought the candidates in, gave them a tour of the organisation, and then they did a small assessment that simulated the actual job – in this case, watching a video and answering questions to show whether or not they know when a truck driver is falling asleep.”

The simulation model allowed Seeing Machines to choose suitable candidates based on their real aptitudes, rather than interview performance. Then, the successful candidates attended a work readiness program at the Canberra Institute of Technology and commenced their roles.

“They’ve had a really high success rate, for the business and the candidates,” Mr Smith said.

“Seeing Machines have only lost two out of the eighteen staff now – and they only left because they got better jobs, which is great for the candidates.”

Getting onto the horse 

Another success story of using inclusivity to everyone’s advantage came when David placed a student named Thom, who was on the autism spectrum and seeking part-time work.

Thom and his Manager at a Show Pony event.


Canberra-based event management company Show Pony Events had often utilised a casual workforce to assist with event set-up, warehousing and event design.

“They often need young people to help them, so I just brought Thom in for a shift – and that worked well, he really enjoyed it,” said Mr Smith.

“They put him with a manager who understood autism for his trial shifts, and from that experience, they offered him a job. He works on a casual basis, and he’s just so happy because his employer understands his strengths and weaknesses and they play to his strengths.”

By utilising team members within the business who understood how to support a neurodiverse candidate, Show Pony events were able to take advantages of Thom’s natural talents.

“Thom’s interested in sound engineering and lighting, so the business gives a lot of those tasks to him now, and he’s got a profound strength in that space.”

Lose the cookie-cutter approach

There are broad-reaching benefits for businesses of all sizes in taking a more inclusive approach when hiring new staff.

As David’s experience and career journey show us, hiring people with a disability using a tailored methodology can be far better for business than using traditional recruitment methods.

“These days I’m working on something that has an excellent purpose to it, and work with candidates that just don’t get a go through mainstream recruitment – and they are just awesome candidates,” Mr Smith said.

“They’ve all got unique strengths, and it’s just about trying to work out what their strengths are and using a more appropriate process.”

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