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Launching Neurodiversity at Your Company: Get the Benefits of Differently-abled Employees in Your Workplace

Global software leaders are learning that organizational neurodiversity- integrating employees who think differently into the workplace- can improve productivity, quality and business performance. Over the past several years, SAP, Microsoft, HPE and others have begun hiring adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and are recognizing that these employees add unique skills and perspective to their products and organizations. They have learned that some autistic workers outperform neurotypical coworkers at a variety of tasks from routine quality inspection through complex data analysis or pattern recognition assignments. They also report workplace and cultural benefits from having “differently-abled” employees on their teams.

This article, the second in a series on the software industry’s move toward neurodiversity, shares some of the lessons learned by the early pioneers and provides practical steps for other companies that want to gain the benefits of this approach.

1) Unleash a hidden superpower within your company. Autism is exploding. With one in every 68 births this year diagnosed with ASD, more of your workforce will be close to a person on the spectrum, maybe a son, daughter, cousin or friend. Early experience shows that if you ask for volunteers to spearhead an autism employment program, you’ll see passionate employees come forward to champion the cause. A prime example is Jose Velasco, an SAP employee that began spearheading the company’s U.S. Autism at Work program four years ago. He told me, “I had 14 years of experience at SAP as an employee leading software architecture and product management projects, but I had 20 years of experience in autism education and development.” The father of two autistic children, Jose already understood the need and the challenges, making him an ideal leader for SAP’s neurodiversity program. The program, which now has global reach, employs over 100 autistic workers as software engineers, data analysts, IT technicians and in many other roles. Remember, many workers who care for an autistic child don’t broadly share their personal experiences, but they will be motivated when given the opportunity to make an important and lasting difference in your workplace. These people are the hidden superheroes that will lead your organization’s effort to bring neurodiverse employees on board. You just need to let them take the ball and run with it.

2) Talk to all your employees about the value of neurodiversity. The most successful autism employment programs have broad employee involvement as well as executive commitment at the highest levels. That’s because neurodiversity is not just a change in your hiring process, it’s a change in how your team works together. It’s critical that everyone in your company understands those changes, participates in the process and knows that management will support them. Organizational leaders should explain that differing thought processes can lead to better software and a better culture and that the leading software companies are already seeing these benefits. They should explain that a neurodiverse workplace requires a rethinking of the hiring process and, sometimes, accommodations that everyone needs to be on board with.

3) Get help from people who have neurodiversity programs. The innovators in this area understand that everyone gains by sharing their learnings. Large companies should contact Specialisterne, a Danish non-profit foundation that’s developed assessment, training, and management methodologies for neurodiversity employment and has helped implement programs at scale, such as SAP’s program which is now operating in 9 countries. SAP has also begun to share its knowledge and recently hosted its second Autism at Work Summit where companies large and small discussed their best practices openly. There are also many online resources, including Autism Speaks’ “Employer’s Guide to Hiring and Retaining Employees on the Autism Spectrum Disorder”. Another valuable online source is The Spectrum Employment Community, a LinkedIn group that I administer that is dedicated to employment for people on the spectrum and is sponsored by the Autism Aspergers Syndrome Coalition for Education, Networking and Development (AASCEND).

4) Rethink your hiring process. Most organizations screen all employees in the same manner -- with an interview, which is essentially a social test that often measures skills unrelated to the work. Interviews naturally disadvantage those with disabilities, particularly autism, which is a social disability. (Many autistic candidates need to be comfortable with someone new before they can communicate their capabilities.) Work with your HR department to find other approaches for assessing candidates. For example, rather than interviews, the leading software companies use cloudbased tools, such as HackerRank, CodeEval, Devskiller and Interview Mocha, which evaluate coding skills. Screening can also take the form of trial projects. The Specialisterne assessment approach, adopted by SAP and Microsoft, uses a week-long robotics workshop to observe how job candidates think and work together.

5) Strive for “cultural add” instead of “cultural fit.” Many qualified candidates are screened out due to “cultural fit,” which often means social ability, like-ability or just “like me.” Autistic candidates, as well as other differently-abled candidates, can be tremendous additions to a company’s culture. Most of them have incredible stories of persistence and determination. Most are loyal, enthusiastic supporters of their employers. Matt Tague, Diversity Manager at LinkedIn and founder of EnabledIn, an employee resource group supporting the disabled and their families, says his employer is now emphasizing “cultural add” instead of “cultural fit” and he hopes other companies will follow suit.

The software industry has taken the lead in learning how to cultivate and maintain a neurodiverse workforce, and there is plenty for us to learn from these innovators. As our society adjusts to having almost 2% of its workforce on the autism spectrum, it’s inevitable that all companies will begin to understand the rationale behind and the benefits of neurodiversity.