By Tele Tan
Protecting Australia’s technology and industrial infrastructure requires a diverse, skilled and dynamic cybersecurity workforce. Developing talents in this area is a journey which should begin at secondary school. Research has shown that students who are introduced to computing literacy at secondary school are up to eight times more likely to pursue careers in IT, including cybersecurity. Recently, there has been a high level of enthusiasm regarding embedding cybersecurity training within schools, however, this has not been executed effectively. An integrated solution involving education technology, training of teachers, curriculum mapping and availability of fit-for-purpose learning resources has been lacking. This presents an exciting opportunity for the education sector to create transformational experiences to take on this important and unique challenge.
As the push for diversity and inclusion in cybersecurity and other IT fields continues in the corporate world, now is the time for real action to implement an inclusive culture where we recognise and celebrate the uniqueness of all individuals, including those on the autism spectrum. The unique interests and traits of autistic individuals makes them well suited to roles in cybersecurity. These traits include honesty, loyalty, extreme attention to detail, laser-like concentration, investigative and inquisitive mindsets, logical systematic thinking, enhanced pattern recognition and dedication to task completion. In addition, many autisticindividuals have an interest and affinity for technology, given its rule-based environment. These individuals currently represent an untapped resource. There is a clear opportunity for their skills and capabilities to be harnessed for the benefit of Australian cybersecurity.
Organisations employing autistic individuals report surprising benefits, including a 50% increase in productivity compared to their peers in certain tasks. For example, companies such as Microsoft, SAP, and Freddie Mac have successful programs that exclusively employ autistic individuals in complicated IT roles. Similarly, Britain is known to recruit neurodiverse people into the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Today, GCHQ is one of the biggest employers of autistic individuals in Britain. The Australian Government has also achieved successful outcomes through programs such as the Dandelion@Defence program, which aims to turn traits of neurodivergent individuals into a competitive advantage in cybersecurity.
The Autism Academy at Curtin University is one of the first organisations in Australia to create a framework for identifying and developing these unique neurodivergent talents. Over the past five years, the Academy’s secondary school outreach and work integrated learning program has supported close to 360 young autistic individuals, assisting them to pursue careers in IT and cybersecurity. The Academy has collaborated with educational institutions, industry, government and the community groups to transform cybersecurity talent development in Australia through harnessing the potential of neurodiversity. While it is encouraging to see the recent emergence of social impact enterprises each having a role in creating the understanding and acceptance of autistic individuals in the cybersecurity workforce, we need to see greater funding and support for a spectrum of pathway training programs for future cybersecurity practitioners that are currently in schools.