If you told Natasha Ricks a few years ago that she’d be working in customer service and talking to people on the phone every day, she wouldn’t have believed you.
“Before high school I was extremely shy. You wouldn’t think I would work in a customer service centre because I had selective mutism and hardly spoke to anyone,” she says.
The 21-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum, works at employment and recruitment agency Maxima in their Disability Employment Services customer relationships team in Adelaide, South Australia.
Natasha came to Maxima straight out of high school as an Eligible School Leaver.
“(Maxima) was my first gig,” she says. “My high school got in touch with Maxima and they did an information day at our school. They signed the Year 12s up which included me.”
As someone who kept to herself during her early school years, Natasha says she felt prepared when contacted for an interview at Maxima’s Hindmarsh location shortly after.
“High school brought me out of my shell, so by the time I was offered an interview at Maxima, I was in a place where I thought ‘why not, let’s go for it’,” she says.
“Before the interview I still had some anxieties and nerves that I don’t have anymore. I would rush everywhere, get flustered when I didn’t know where to go, and feel stressed thinking I was going to be late when I was actually 10 minutes early.”
“When I arrived I was actually quite calm and got the job a couple of hours later.”
Finding a happy work-life balance
Shadowing someone in the role to begin with, Nataha remembers hitting the ground running from day one.
“I didn’t have any experience in this type of role, so I learnt a lot as I went along.”
“I now take incoming calls, make outbound calls, handle enquiries and direct registrations, lodge feedback from customers, enter survey responses, plus general admin and emails,” she says.
Starting at eight hours a week, Natasha is now permanent part-time and works 23 hours a week over five days.
“I go beyond my benchmark hours because I need my independence. I wanted to work more hours so I can support myself,” she says.
“Currently I’m only eligible for youth allowance, and if you go over a certain amount of hours the payments stop. So 23 hours is what works best for me.”
Working part-time has allowed Natasha to move into her own unit in the Adelaide CBD and create a routine that suits her lifestyle.
“It's been fabulous, having the opportunity to move into my place. It was stressful to juggle moving and work at the same time, but I’m all sorted now.”
“I get everything ready for work the night before so I don’t have to worry about anything in the morning. Because I live in the city I just walk to the nearest bus or tram to get to work.”
Natasha says her work-life balance allows plenty of time for her favourite activities like catching up with friends, going to the gym, or her newest hobby, playing squash.
“I’ve got a much better weekend routine now. Sometimes I might even go to the movies or make a trip to (Adelaide Hills town) Hahndorf.”
Growing in confidence
As well as picking up a range of professional skills, Natasha has noticed a spike in her self-confidence since starting at Maxima.
“I now feel like I can talk freely to others - not just customers but also people outside of work. Before, I was really nervous and I didn’t want to say something that would upset someone,” she says.
“But now I know what to say and it just flows out. Even if it doesn’t, I make a joke with the customer and laugh it off and they usually laugh with me - I think that shows them that I’m just a normal person on the other end of the phone.”
“I would say my other strengths at work are admin, writing emails, and typing.”
Maxima Employment Support Consultant Shari Ienco says she’s seen “massive changes” in Natasha's confidence since they started working together in June.
“I’m in the office with Natasha once a week, and sometimes we have calls throughout the week. We talk through any issues that have come up and work through solutions.”
Sharis says she would describe Natasha as happy, positive and very resilient.
“I often get feedback from other staff saying she’s very easy to talk to and handles everything so well, even if she doesn’t think she does.”
“She’s a perfect mix between professional and personable.”
Working with autism
Natasha says she’s been able to identify and manage some traits that come with being on the spectrum.
“One thing I had to work through was overstimulation when I first started in the job,” she says.
“I was doing too many things and also getting very excited and happy if I did something that went well - it was to the extreme.”
Since starting at Maxima, Natasha has noticed she’s better at handling stress and doesn’t put as much pressure on herself.
“I think that comes down to the fact that I’m not so hard on myself like I was before,” she says.
“I know that everyone makes mistakes and I don’t get so upset if something doesn’t go how I wanted it to.”
The “perfect workplace”
Natasha says she feels supported and valued at Maxima.
“Our supervisors trust us to get our work done in a way that works for us without a lot of pressure,” she says.
“If you’ve just been on a hard call, and you need to switch off it’s ok to have a short breather and de-stress.”
Natasha says she’s “really lucky” to have found a good group of people to work with in her first job.
“It’s always exciting to come into the office in the morning because I love to spend time with my coworkers. Yes it’s a work environment, but we still enjoy each other’s company.”
“I have a perfect workplace.”
Staying true to yourself
“I don’t know everyone’s situation or what they’ve been through, but I do know that when it comes to being on the spectrum, that it can be difficult to convince yourself that you’ll get somewhere in work,” says Natasha.
Her biggest piece of advice? Embrace your unique personality, ‘quirks’ and all.
“When I was younger I sometimes felt out of place because I was very quirky and maybe what some would call a little bit ‘weird’.”
“I would say don’t change your personality to have someone like you or to find employment.”
“You might be ‘out of the box’ but there’s a place for you anyway. Your quirkiness will bring something interesting to the workplace.”
Natasha says if you’re not accepted in a workplace, then it wasn’t meant to be.
“There is always another workplace that will take you in and appreciate you for who you are.”
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