Meet “Jose.” He is a wizard at coding. His resume features two degrees in computer science, both with honors. An obvious choice for a tech company to scoop up, right?
Until recently, no. Before Jose came across a large tech firm that had begun experimenting with alternative approaches to acquiring tech talent, he was unemployed for more than two years. Other companies he had talked with badly needed the skills Jose possessed. But he couldn’t make it through the interview process.
If you watched Jose for a while, you’d start to see why. He seems, well, different. He wears headphones all the time, and when people talk to him, he doesn’t look them in the eye. He takes his eyeglasses off to clean every ten minutes or so; he can’t concentrate when they’re misty or smudged. When they’re clean, though, Jose is the department’s most productive employee. He is hardworking and never wants to take breaks. Although his assigned workplace mentor has finally persuaded him to do so, he doesn’t enjoy downtime at work.
Jose detects patterns with near 100 percent accuracy. He writes code quickly and spots errors fast.
“Jose” is a composite of people we have worked with over the years whose privacy we wanted to protect—people with autism spectrum disorder.
A lot of people are like Jose. The incidence of autism in the United States is now 1 in 42 among boys and 1 in 189 among girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people with autism spectrum disorder have higher-than-average abilities; research shows that some conditions, including autism, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics. Yet those affected often struggle to fit the profiles sought by prospective employers.
Neurodiverse people frequently need workplace accommodations, such as headphones, to prevent auditory overstimulation. Sometimes they also exhibit challenging social idiosyncrasies. In many cases, however, these challenges are manageable, and the potential returns are great.
When Neurodiversity Presents Opportunities
“Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,” John Elder Robison, a scholar in residence and a cochair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, writes in a blog on Psychology Today’s website. Robison, who himself has Asperger’s syndrome, adds, “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.” We couldn’t agree more.
Everyone is to some extent differently abled (a term favored by many neurodiverse people). Our ways of thinking result from both our inherent “machinery” and the life experiences that have “programmed” us.
Not surprisingly, when autistic people get hired, many turn out to be capable, and some are really great.
Why Companies Don’t Tap Neurodiverse Talent
What has kept so many companies from taking on people with the skills they badly need? It comes down to the way they find and recruit talent and decide whom to hire (and promote).
The behaviors of many neurodiverse people run counter to common notions of what makes a good employee—solid communication skills, being a team player, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, the ability to network, the ability to conform to standard social practices, and so on. These criteria systematically screen out neurodiverse people.
But they are not the only way to provide value. In fact, in recent decades, the ability to compete based on innovation has become more crucial for many companies. Innovation calls on firms to add variety to the team—to include people and ideas from “the margins.” Having people who see things “differently” is an asset.
The tech industry in particular has a history of hiring “oddballs.” The talented nerd who lacks social graces has become a cultural icon. Think a couple certain tech companies starting up in garages. Many of the industry’s most iconic “oddballs” and “nerds” might well have been “on the spectrum,” although undiagnosed. Hiring for neurodiversity is an extension of a culture that recognizes the value of nerds. Companies who use an equity lens in the hiring process will look cleverly at individuals who do not meet the “social” norm “test” in job interviews. Once an individual’s talent is recognized and a job offer is extended, companies need to go one step further to mentor neurodiverse talent to empower their success at work.