- Workers with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, and other learning and mental health differences make up the neurodiverse population.
- The CDC estimates that the prevalence of autism reached 1 in 44 children last year, up from 1 in 110 in 2006.
- An increasing number of companies are integrating neurodiverse people into the workplace as they recognize their growing numbers and unique skills.
As companies grapple with the challenge of bringing employees back into the office while also accommodating the needs of different generations, another seismic demographic shift is taking place: a sharp increase in the neurodiverse workforce.
Workers with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, Tourette's syndrome, and other learning and mental health differences make up the neurodiverse population. An increasing number of companies are integrating these individuals into the workplace as they recognize their growing number and the unique skills they bring to a variety of jobs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, for instance, that the prevalence of autism last year reached 1 in 44 children, up from 1 in 110 in 2006. Drexel University researchers project that as many as 1 million young people with autism are expected to turn 18 over the next decade.
This huge pool of neurodiverse talent, with unemployment rates nearing 30% to 40% according to some estimates, is now being tapped by companies across a host of industries. JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, SAP, Hilton, and EY are just a few of the organizations that have specific programs in place to interview, hire, and onboard neurodiverse workers.
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The ongoing war for talent amid the pandemic is certainly fueling this growing trend. Hiren Shukla, leader of EY's Global and Americas Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence, says a largely untapped pool of neurodiverse workers brings creativity and complex problem-solving skills to the company and has the ability to "reimagine the world."
Corporate America's emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion is prompting companies to expand their view of diversity beyond race and gender, says Jill Houghton, president and CEO of Disability:IN, a global nonprofit that works to help businesses achieve disability equity and inclusion.
"There is a growing recognition among companies that neurodiverse talent really brings innovation, creativity, and strong problem solving in an ever more complex technology environment," she says. For business leaders — whether they are neurodiverse themselves or have family members who are — the move to integrate these workers stems from the "opportunity and responsibility to change the tide on this conversation," Houghton says.
'No one is cleaning cafeterias'
Bryan Gill, global head of neurodiversity at JPMorgan Chase, says hiring neurodiverse workers means getting them fully integrated into the bank's core business. "No one is cleaning cafeterias or sweeping the parking lot," he says. "They are doing jobs that are critical to our success."
Gill says the bank offers two different paths to bring neurodivergent workers onboard. For individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities — those further on the autism spectrum or quasi-non-verbal, for instance — JPMorgan Chase partners with outside agencies and universities that are familiar with this talent pool and have the ability to accurately match a specific bank job with the right person.
In this approach, the bank will tease out from an existing job an iterative task or process that would likely prove repetitive or unfulfilling for a neurotypical (someone without intellectual or developmental disabilities) employee.
For example, he says the algorithms that are part of the bank's artificial intelligence work require analysis of large amounts of data that are essential but repetitive. "A neurotypical employee would not be drawn to this kind of work and would find it unfulfilling," he says.
Once Gill carved out this repetitive function and created a new job from it, the outside agencies the bank partners with were able to find the right candidate. "My colleague who has this job today is mostly nonverbal," he says. With his communication barriers "you would never match him with an opportunity to sit in front of a computer and do data training for JPMorgan, but he loves it," Gill says.
For individuals with autism or those whose disabilities are less severe, JPMorgan Chase will interview and hire those workers for the bank's publicly available jobs.
"None of this costs a lot and the accommodations are minimal," Gill says. "Moving a seat, perhaps changing a fluorescent bulb, and offering noise-cancelling headphones are the kinds of things we're talking about."
More than coding
Microsoft was one of the earliest companies to launch an official program to hire autistic workers in 2015 and has since expanded and refined its approach. Neil Barnett, director of inclusive hiring and accessibility at the tech giant, says the company has hired autistic employees since its earliest days, but sought a more structured program to better tap into this talent pool.
"We wanted to create a different front door for these workers and thought that if we changed the interview process and let job seekers come as they are and show us their strengths it would be better for everyone," he says. "This is such a big pool of talent and they've been historically way underemployed."
Microsoft's four-day interview process begins with candidates virtually meeting the different teams at the company as well as the other neurodiverse job seekers. Days two and three focus on team building exercises, core competencies and mock interviews with feedback from managers. On the last day, candidates go through the actual interview process, with ample breaks in between to lessen the stress and anxiety of meeting different people.
Barnett says Microsoft does these hiring sessions four to six times a year and has so far hired 200 full-time employees through the program. He's quick to point out that the jobs span across all aspects of the business including customer service, finance, business operations and marketing. "We wanted to bust the myth that autistic workers are only good at coding," he says. "They're not and we want to give them a chance at not just having a job, but a career."
As the number of neurodiverse people increase in the years ahead, companies that hope to get the talent they need will have to figure out ways to bring them onboard. In addition to the skills these workers offer, Gill says the impact they have on a company's culture should not be overlooked.
"We grossly underestimated the impact that having a neurodiverse worker on a team would have," he says. "Colleagues spent time educating themselves about how to interact with a neurodiverse team member, how to be a patient coach and part of the solution to support this colleague." Managers tell Gill that this behavior then translates into the way everyone else is treated on the team. Says he: "The morale and culture is just strengthened in ways we never would have expected."
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