My experience brought me face to face with the employment disparities for people with disabilities, especially autism. I eventually found a summer associate position two months later, entirely by chance: I struck up a conversation with a lawyer in an elevator, and he handed me his business card, asked for a résumé and invited me for an interview at his firm. As a college and law school graduate, I am part of the 36 percent of autistic students who pursue postsecondary education. But only 58 percent of young autistic people have work experience after high school and into their early 20s, and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities have an abysmal 85 percent unemployment rate, according to a 2018 Autism Society briefing.
Closing that gap requires a cultural shift, so that neurodivergent job candidates — a group that includes people with intellectual, developmental or learning disabilities, as well as others whose brains function differently — don’t waste years bouncing between interviews. Employers often focus on perceived deficits: our diagnoses, difficulty making eye contact, sensory and social challenges, or executive functioning skills. They underestimate the competitive advantages of neurodiversity.
Companies that bring in workers with disabilities outperform their competitors, averaging 28 percent higher revenue, according to a 2019 Accenture study, and inclusive employers also report higher shareholder returns. When autistic people were hired to test software in Australia’s Department of Human Services, the neurodiverse group was 30 percent more productive than their neurotypical colleagues, the Harvard Business Review reported. Neurodiverse employees have also assisted with major innovations: Neurodiverse employees at the technology company SAP helped create a technical fix that saved the company nearly $40 million.
While I do not work in a scientific field, my ability to deal with complex information is one reason I was recruited as an attorney practicing in complicated areas of law such as health care and anti-terrorism litigation. With my laser-focus mind and near-photographic memory, I can help comb through close to a million documents and take note of minute details concerning places and names, noticing patterns that others would not. Neurodiverse people can be “less flexible in terms of cognitive abilities,” said Lawrence Fung, director of the Stanford Neurodiversity Project. But “because of that less flexible tendency, they are persistent on working on certain things to really make them complete.” Autistic and other neurodivergent people often thrive on repetition and routine, and have an eye for detail. As Fung puts it, when neurodiverse people zero in on a specific interest, “they go into so much depth that they are able to create opportunities that a lot of people are not able to find, because they won’t get to the depth of the matter.”
Existing hiring practices tend to disadvantage neurodiverse people. According to a 2015 study, neurotypical people regularly misunderstand and misinterpret autistic people’s behaviors. This can be a huge barrier to employment, considering the importance of traditional job interviews, which can have rigid conventions around what constitutes a smooth or successful social interaction. Eye contact, which can be cumbersome for autistic people, is often taken as a measure of attention, a barometer for gauging the other person’s interest, or even a proxy for warmth, empathy or trustworthiness. An excited flapping of the hands, on the other hand, could be interpreted as unprofessional conduct, when it is an autistic person’s way of conveying enthusiasm. A click of a pen could be perceived as distracting, but for someone with ADHD, it might be a necessary tactic to decrease nervousness or to focus on verbal communication. Support groups, job coaches and vocational rehabilitation services can help job seekers with techniques for appropriately disclosing disabilities during the application process, but bridging the gap also requires that employers normalize that discussion.
Adding more skills-based assessments could also help take the focus off perceived social deficits. The A&E docuseries “The Employables” highlights the difference this step can make. In one episode, Jaleesa Jenkins, a young woman with Tourette’s syndrome, interviewed for a job as a youth counselor at her local Boys & Girls Club, where a three-person panel was initially put off by her physical and verbal tics. Afterward, she led an activity with the children: Her passion was obvious, and she gracefully explained her tics to the curious kids. She was hired. The other person featured in the episode, Erik Weber, is an autistic attorney. When a job interview made him nervous and he began to make bird noises, he was turned away. When he was afforded the opportunity to review a special education case and client file, he excelled.
Truly inclusive workplaces must give neurodiverse workers the accommodations they need to perform their jobs. This does not necessarily have to be an expensive undertaking; more often, it requires a cultural change, and it can be as simple as establishing predictability and routine at work. For me, accommodation means being allowed to tune out loud noises with light music playing through my ear buds or getting to talk with my hands without having to restrain the movement. For others, it could be working somewhere without fluorescent lighting because of the harshness or the hum of the light is distracting. Employers need to create environments and prepare their employees “so the usual challenges are not going to surface,” Fung said, “or if they do surface, they will not be blown out of proportion.”
Genuine inclusion is not about ticking off another box on some diversity checklist: We must make sure that we are aligning people of all abilities and support needs to their strengths. We all benefit when we have opportunities to interact with minds different from our own.