As the STEM skills shortage intensifies, more and more enterprises are setting aside old ways of thinking when it comes to searching out the next great hire. One innovation is to recruit people on the autism spectrum for cybersecurity, analytics and other roles in which many “neurodiverse” individuals can truly shine. But what should our expectations be, and what questions do enterprises need to think about, as we see what the neurodiverse workplace is today and imagine what it might become?
According to the U.S.-based Autism Society, about one percent of the world’s population has autism spectrum disorder. That includes several million people in India, an estimated 700,000 UK adults and 1 out of every 68 children now being born in the United States. As IT industry recruiters have noticed, people who aren’t “neurotypical” often bring extraordinary abilities in calculation, pattern recognition, and memory, to name a few STEM-related skills.
Researchers writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry found that children with autism used highly efficient math strategies — such as breaking complex problems down into a series of simpler ones — that were more sophisticated than that those of their peers. A strong connection also exists between autism and enhanced visual skills. With strengths in areas of the brain that centre on image processing, a person with autism may find that he or she effortlessly “thinks in pictures,” in the words of neurodiversity advocate Temple Grandin.
Grandin, a university professor who has autism, suggests in a popular TED Talk that Albert Einstein, Mozart, Nikola Tesla and countless other “brilliant scientists and engineers” should be central to our thinking about the spectrum that extends from non-verbal states of perception to Asperger’s Syndrome and beyond. In the inspiring story, she tells about the value of neurodiversity in today’s workplaces and schools — every kind of mind has insights and unique solutions to contribute, whether we’re visual, pattern or verbal thinkers.
At DXC, we make it a priority to recruit, hire and retain people with autism. Through the DXC Dandelion Program, we seek to help neurodiverse workers further develop professional and life skills and find rewarding jobs in data science, software testing and cybersecurity. At our Adelaide Delivery Centre, a group of college students who are on the autism spectrum delivered two projects incorporating Agile software development and created a robotics application for a school for autistic children. Graduates of the Dandelion Program also work in Australian government as cyber experts applying their advanced pattern-recognition skills to spot evidence of hacker intrusions.
According to Entrepreneur magazine, approximately 50 U.S. companies currently have workforces that contain more people with autism than neurotypical workers.
More programs like Dandelion are needed to expand career opportunities for people with autism. According to Harvard-affiliated researchers Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano, who have studied the Dandelion Program in depth, “unemployment runs as high as 80 percent” for the neurodiverse population, and “even highly capable neurodiverse people are often underemployed.”
Transforming the conversation
As more people with autism enter the IT workforce, enterprises will increasingly explore new ways of supporting, training and managing these workers. Here are a few areas where this rapidly evolving conversation may focus:
- The right processes. What steps can organisations take to fine-tune their recruitment, interviewing, hiring, training, assessment and retention processes to better accommodate people who may think and behave differently from other employees? What specially designed onboarding processes could be used to orient workers who do not communicate verbally but in other ways? How can we revolutionise the standard performance-review meeting so that it works for neurodiverse and neurotypical workers equally?
- The right resources. What new capabilities do enterprises need — in addition to their own in-house support systems — in order to successfully strengthen their teams with neurodiverse talent? If nonprofit and governmental organisations are available to help, how will the business coordinate and monitor the specific types of assistance for employees’ housing, rehabilitation or other needs? How desirable is it for the hiring organisation to play a major role in creating a stable, consistent experience for people with autism as they move from home to work and back each workday and throughout their working lives?
- The right opportunities. What creative adjustments or new tools will organisations need to ensure that neurodiverse employees have career development paths similar to neurotypical employees? Should organisations seek to create high-level, non-managerial roles for neurodiverse workers who are uncomfortable supervising others? What career opportunities may be uniquely attractive for people with autism?
Through the evolution of neurodiversity recruitment programs, people with autism will discover clearer paths to satisfying work. As they do, the enterprises that hire them are likely to experience benefits that include better quality, improved productivity, more innovative thinking and increased employee engagement. The result may add up to more vibrant workplaces where different minds come together for exceptional collaboration and innovation that aren’t possible to create in any other way.