Ausnew Home Care | How Nick McAllister found his words after a tough

How Nick McAllister found his words after a tough time looking for employment as an autistic writer

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For 10 years, I was unemployed because I was autistic.

Every time I was forced to tick the "I have a disability" box, it made me feel insignificant as a human being.

It became the focal point of who I was — and I knew when I would get that automated rejection email telling me I didn't get the job, it was because of my condition.

There are both misconceptions and fears about employing a disabled person, but also ignorance and prejudice. 

After my autism diagnosis, I successfully applied for the state disability support pension.

I believed I was totally and utterly unemployable and was scared I would be condemned to being completely reliant on government payments.

I never for one second thought my actual disability would hurt my chances of finding employment, but I never disclosed my diagnosis out of fear of rejection and being stereotyped as incapable, unambitious and unreliable.

A man with glasses and a grey jumper sits at a laptop. A Seek website logo is reflected in his glasses. Ausnew Home Care, NDIS registered provider, My Aged Care
For people with autism like Nick, applying for a job can be a cause of great stress.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

After I moved to Western Australia from Brisbane I started to blog about my new life as an autistic person.

I needed a creative outlet to immerse myself in and keep myself from being swallowed up in a deep pool of rejection and depression.

I registered with a lot of disability job agencies, but the whole experience left me feeling as though I was being abandoned by them.

It felt like they were casting me aside and I felt even more unemployable and worthless.

My path to employment

During this time a local disability service provider who saw my blog asked me to write some online content for them.

A man with glasses and a grey jumper sits at a desk working on a laptop next to a window.
Nick was diagnosed with autism at the age of 40.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

The first person I interviewed was their then-CEO John Macdonald.

Before our sit-down interview, I told John of my desire to work for the ABC as a journalist.

The following week I got an email from a friend of John's who works at the ABC, and he encouraged me to contact ABC WA news editor Andrew O'Connor.

I had a brief conversation with Andrew and was invited to have a face-to-face meeting with him.

At that meeting, Andrew laid out exactly what he had in mind for me and how it would align with the ABC.

He asked me to write two articles based on what I believed were important issues from my perspective as an autistic person.

Nick McAllister
Nick's personal blog lead him to employment with the ABC.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

At another meeting in the office, Andrew offered me a one-year contract where I would not only write about my disability, but all disabilities.

My first day was a sensory onslaught that I was unprepared for.

I was in an unfamiliar environment. I had never been inside a busy working newsroom before.

My nerves were on high alert, as was my anxiety, and I wasn't sure how I would be perceived by the others in the office.

I have three-way conversations in my head whenever I interact with other work colleagues.

The only way I can describe this is, imagine you are sitting in a booth at a UN conference and being connected to a translator sitting in another booth close by wearing a set of headphones.

The conversation begins — I hear it and they also hear it and translate it for me.

I must interpret what that person says into what I class as "autism language". It's then processed into English and I repeat my answer back.

It's a tiring process.

A man with glasses and a navy jacket and pants sits alone on a park bench.
Nick found the process of being in a busy workplace exhausting but is quickly finding ways to feel more comfortable.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

There have been some bumpy roads working at the ABC as we all figure out how best to accommodate my needs and for me to learn what it's like being back in the workforce.

I feel validated and welcomed by Andrew and the ABC, who have not only seen the disability but also the person behind it.

I also feel very supported and proud that I can share other disabled people's stories across the ABC.

Rebecca Trigger, former ABC WA digital editor

On Nick's first day, I ignored him.

I didn't do it deliberately, but it was a busy news day and I had only recently started in my role as digital editor. There were a lot of people and tasks competing for attention.

Occasionally I glanced over at where he was sitting on his own at his computer, looking industrious.

"Crap," I thought. "I really need to go have a chat and make sure he's settling in OK, but he looks like he has a grip on everything."

I had no idea he was instead dealing with what he described above – the overwhelming office environment on top of the usual first-day nerves.

A woman in a black dress posing for a photo
Rebecca Trigger mentored Nick as the person overseeing the ABC WA newsroom's digital content.(ABC News: James Carmody)

It was the start of a journey that through Nick's patience and work ethic has delivered the ABC successful, compelling, and insightful storytelling.

Nick is a story-generating machine, pitching ideas like representation of disability on reality television, dating in the modern world and accepting your new body if you acquire a disability.

These yarns have resonated with a huge number of Australians, consistently delivering above-average readership and engagement.

They forced me to open my eyes to stories that may not immediately seem to fit the traditional "news values" framework we as journalists and editors sometimes get stuck in. 

Nick's stories foreground voices we don't hear enough of, despite the size of the community they belong to.

About 18 per cent of people live with a disability in Australia. If you don't have a disability yourself, you almost certainly know someone who does.

And along with the value he brings to the ABC, I've had the bonus of getting to work one-on-one with Nick, which has been a delight.

He's hilarious, with a dry wit that makes me crack up 10 times a day.

Three people sit at a computer chatting, with a TV studio lit up in the background
Nick writes disability affairs content for the ABC's digital platforms.(ABC News: Julian Robins)

Working with him has given me the opportunity to learn a little about the disability he lives with.

I hope as a result, I'm more aware of people around me and more tuned in if someone with autism is struggling.

But Nick's value to the newsroom is not defined by his disability. His lived experience is a valuable asset, but it comes with the whole package – he's a skilled writer and a good colleague to boot.

I'm thrilled the ABC is invested in covering this important area by hiring Nick and appreciate the opportunities it's brought me and the whole newsroom to expand our horizons.

Andrew O'Connor, ABC WA news editor

Like many good things, working with Nick started with a happy accident. 

An ABC News colleague had a friend who told him about an interesting autistic blogger and wondered if he might be a good fit for ABC News.

The colleague passed on Nick's details, we made contact and started down the path that ultimately led to Nick becoming our disability affairs reporter in Perth.

ABC News is making a concerted effort to bring more people with disability into our teams, as part of a broader strategy of being more relevant to more Australians.

A lightly bearded man with short hair and a blue business shirt stands in a newsroom
Andrew O'Connor became a mentor to Nick, but also learned a great deal about people with disability himself.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Nick's work in disability affairs has given people with disability a clearer place and voice in our mix of stories and content.

It's been a steep learning curve on both sides of the working relationship as we've navigated a path between Nick's needs and the newsroom's requirements.

Critical to the success of that mutual learning has been to listen – that is, us listening to Nick about what he needs and how we can best support him.

Nick has taught us to understand how autism shapes the way he interacts, learns, and works and we've adjusted our processes accordingly.

Because he is vulnerable to sensory overwhelm, we found Nick a relatively quiet area to sit.

Because he desires predictability, we were careful to keep our commitments and hit our appointments on time.

Feedback worked best when it was clear and concise.

Most important of all was working with and treating Nick as a colleague – enjoying conversation, sharing light moments, and seeking his insights.

The results so far have been outstanding. Nick's range of topics has been impressive – from the representation of people with disability in movies to the challenges of dating in the disability community.

The wide spectrum of stories repeatedly finds a wide audience on ABC News online and social, attracting readers outside the disability community and helping break down stereotypes.

The engine of Nick's progress is his clear communication, ability to learn and willingness to work with us as we encounter and overcome any problems.

It's enabled him to quickly take his place among our reporting team and contribute high-quality articles that give an insight into disability issues only a person living with disability could provide.

ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.


Source: ABC

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