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Watching autism at work

Employable Me star Jonathan Sheedy shares more about what makes him tick

Jonathan Sheedy never expected to be a TV star. But the 19-year-old from Sydney’s inner west has become one of the latest jobseekers to win over Australia through ABC’s Employable Me documentary series.

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“It’s slightly nerve-racking to watch yourself on TV,” Jonathan tells Eternity, the morning after his episode aired on Tuesday. The night before, a flood of messages rained down on his phone as Employable Me showed Jonathan (and two other people also on the autism spectrum, Ben and Krystyna) searching to find their places in Australia’s workforce.

“Tonnes of people [said] positive things about the show and how it has made such a difference in their life.” – Jonathan Sheedy

Viewers could not fail to notice Jonathan’s passion for finance, sharp dressing and “power words”. A 19-year-old who is in his second year of studying part-time for a Bachelor of Accounting at Sydney’s University of Notre Dame, Jonathan knows what he’s about and is going after it. Exhibit A: locking down a six-month internship in Westpac’s Information Security Group, as Employable Me revealed.

While a driven man when it comes to career – he will move on to a full cadetship with Ernst and Young when his Westpac internship ends next month – Jonathan had no ambition for TV fame. Still, he remembers it only took him five seconds’ thought to agree to featuring on Employable Me.

Approached by Aspect Capable, an organisation that assists the social development of young adults on the autism spectrum, Jonathan recognised the benefits of being involved in a TV programme. Along with registering how enticing it would be for prospective employers if he came to them with an offer of media coverage, Jonathan hoped Employable Me would also broadcast positive messages about the spectrum of autism.

His hopes have been realised: “I was on the bus on the way to work today and I was looking on Twitter for #employableme. I saw tonnes of people saying positive things about the show and how it has made such a difference in their life. The show has [also] made a huge impact on public discourse as a whole.”

“Most people when they look at a person with autism, they say, ‘Oh, you couldn’t possibly be a Christian.’” – Jonathan Sheedy

The Employable Me production team whittled down ten hours of footage with Jonathan to about 20 minutes. He reckons they showed the best material he gave them yet one key element of his life was broadcast only in subtle ways.

Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed the cross necklace Jonathan wore. This intentional fashion statement points to Jonathan’s Christian faith, something he has found others struggle to understand about him.

“Most people when they look at a person with autism, they say, ‘Oh, you couldn’t possibly be a Christian,’ explains Jonathan, who attends a church in inner-city Sydney. “But, luckily for me, I was raised in a Christian family. I was shared the prophecies surrounding Jesus. I’ve looked at the historicity of the death and resurrection of Jesus – and to have trust in Jesus is very rational. And if I can do it, so can other people.”

Jonathan believes a stereotype has been perpetuated by movies such as Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise’s Rain Main (1988), that people with autism have no interest in faith or are hostile to it. But just as Employable Me has other links with Christianity, Jonathan knows his autism has helped to forge his personal faith.

“All Christians should come to terms with their faith and think about their relationship with God. As someone with autism, I am forced to do that more often. Most of my day is comprised of thinking – there is rarely a moment when my brain is not focused on some object of thought.

“I do admit that there should not be entirely a focus upon rationality. It’s a mistake to have a 100 per cent rational approach; there also are other aspects [to Christian faith].”

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” – Jonathan Sheedy

The deliberate and intense focus of Jonathan’s thoughts were heightened by a painful family situation several years ago. “I was quite angry with God after my parents separated and that’s when I really had to think things through – and it actually strengthened my faith.”

While he readily admits to having had other times of frustration with God, Jonathan has embraced his “weapons-grade autism”. But he hardly views himself as a spokesperson for autistic people in the workplace. However, since the show aired and he’s thought about his place in it, he drily jokes that “as Spider-Man once said, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”

Happy to be interviewed if it encourages other people with autism, Jonathan also has a message for anyone similar to him who is seeking to be the best employee they can be: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” Jonathan advises. “Because if not asking for help means you have reduced capability to help your co-workers and your customers, you’re just not going to do as well. Reach out to your co-workers; reach out to your boss or people leader. Ask for help if it means you are able to pursue your job functions and KPIs with more efficiency and greater gusto.”

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