When van Barneveld’s youngest daughter was misdiagnosed with autism (she was re-diagnosed later at the age of 15 as having Rett syndrome, which in its early stages is often confused with autism), he became involved with Autism Queensland and was Chair of the Board for 10 years. With others, he then established the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Living with Autism, which he also now Chairs, raising $100 million of funding to invest in the first whole-of-life approach to autism and the first coordinated approach of its kind in Australia.
Autism and Agriculture Program
Van Barneveld’s involvement with the CRC exposed him to the work of Danish company Specialisterne, which advocated that employing people on the spectrum contributed to diversity of thought in your business and improved overall business HR processes. This led to him developing the ground-breaking Autism and Agriculture Program, designed to introduce autistic employees into the business. Within SunPork, autistic employees are fully integrated, fully paid employees, with no government support or silos.
“Autism and Agriculture began as a pilot program,” van Barneveld says. “It was a collaboration between the Autism CRC, the Pork CRC and a company called Specialisterne, from Denmark, which recognised that autistic individuals have a range of traits that can be very useful, that can be strengths. If you can provide an environment where those strengths can be used effectively, then you have a very effective workforce at your disposal.”
The program has featured twice on Channel Ten’s The Project as well as on ABC’s Landline.
“We’ve received amazing reviews, not only in terms of raising the [equal opportunity] bar but allowing autistic people to share what they can do and giving them an opportunity to do that. It’s also given us an opportunity to improve our overall animal care and production standards.”
Van Barneveld says the program, in his view, has improved the entire workplace.
“That’s because you need to focus on your environment, on how you communicate, on how you train. You need to focus on how other employees are informed and interact. And when you do that, you just end up with a much, much better workplace.”