For most of her adult life, Heather Austin found office life difficult. Colleagues became irritable when she asked a lot of questions, and called her unreasonable when she’d ask them to not play music because it made it tough for her to focus. Sometimes, Austin would cry when she felt overstimulated or overwhelmed, only to be told that she shouldn’t take work so personally.
“I would hide anything that was hard and when I failed at things, I just kept apologizing and repeating what [colleagues] told me, that I had no excuse to be doing poorly at my job,” Austin said.
Two years ago, Austin discovered she was autistic. “It changed my life in all kinds of ways,” including realizing why the office proved so uncomfortable. Equipped with this knowledge, Austin began looking for a new job. The search led her to JPMorgan Chase and its Autism at Work program, launched in 2015 — a program focused on hiring and supporting employees with autism.
Six months ago, Austin began working at the bank’s Chicago office in its operations support department. She feels supported by her bosses and colleagues and by Rangam, the organization that helps JPMorgan Chase with its Autism at Work program. (Austin is a Rangam employee contracted to work at JPMorgan Chase.)
“I am not ‘tolerated,’” Austin said of her new workplace. “I am accepted and thought of as a person, who like every other person on the planet, has some challenges.”
And her boss loves her. “Heather is extremely focused and shares with us how much she enjoys her role,” said Nuvia Vega, operations manager. “Her focus allows her to provide high-quality work, which is priceless to our business,” Vega said, adding that Austin consistently meets productivity rates.
This is the first in a three-part series on building a stronger tech workforce.
An Untapped Workforce
JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program taps a hidden workforce: People who are neurodivergent. Their diagnoses include but are not limited to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and social anxiety disorders. As many as 90 percent of adults with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unemployed or underemployed, and 77 percent who are unemployed say they want to work, according to 2016 National Autistic Society research.
- Neurotypical: This refers to a person who is considered part of the normal variation in the human population. Essentially, it is used to describe people who are not on the autism spectrum or have a developmental difference.
- Neurodivergent: This describes a person who differs from what is considered typical thought patterns and behaviors. It can include diagnoses like autism, ADHD, social anxiety and dyslexia.
- Neurodiversity: A descriptor for a group of people ranging from neurotypical and neurodivergent. As a relatively new term, it is not preferred by everyone within the autism community.
Adults with ADHD, or attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, are 42 percent less likely to be employed full time than adults without the disorder, according to a National Institutes of Health white paper on the subject.
Faced with a labor shortage and a desire to build a stronger tech workforce, companies ranging from Google Cloud to SAP to Microsoft have launched programs to harness this underused talent. “Many companies are seeking out [neurodivergent] employees because of their unique skill sets and analytical skills,” said Scott Allen, a licensed clinical psychologist at Just Mind Counseling in Austin, Texas, who works with tech professionals who are affected by autism spectrum, ADHD, and related disorders.
Neurodivergent people “often have strengths that are paramount to the industry,” Allen said. Among them: The ability to continue with a redundant task over time, the need for predictability and rules central to coding, ‘outside of the box’ thinking and the ability to focus on small details without being distracted by other stimuli.
“I am fully convinced that individuals with ASD will likely help solve many of our world’s problems,” Allen said. “There is a level of pragmatism that helps take the emotions and stress out of decision making, and also a level of creativity that leads to new and often better approaches.”
6 Ways Neurodivergent Employees Can Strengthen The Workforce
- Unique ability to hyperfocus for long periods of time
- Ability to focus on small details
- Superior analytical skills
- Creative and novel ways of approaching problems
- Ability to recognize and learn patterns
- Ability to think in 3D
A Question of Disclosure
“It’s a different way of thinking,” said Dawn Sizer, owner of 3rd Element Consulting, an IT consultancy based in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “The average person might think in a linear fashion: If A plus B equals C, then the outcome is going to be D,” she said. People who are neurodivergent, “don’t necessarily think that the outcome will be D,” she explained. “That out-of-the-box thinking is really amazing in the IoT world.”
Two of Sizer’s 10 employees have autism and one has ADHD. The key idea here is that the employees feel comfortable enough to share their diagnoses. A neurodivergent person might well apply for and receive a position without the hiring manager ever knowing — and federal law prohibits hiring managers from asking any question around disabilities.
“I am not ‘tolerated.’ I am accepted and thought of as a person, who like every other person on the planet, has some challenges.”
Sizer ends initial interviews with this question: “Is there something that makes you unique or different that you’d like to share?” The question can give candidates the opportunity to disclose information about a diagnosis, “and gives you the opportunity to change how you’re interviewing to suit that person and potentially get a really good employee,” she said.
Self disclosure and self advocacy are “a huge theme” in working with adults on the autism spectrum, said Allen of Just Mind. “It’s important for individuals to know when and whether to disclose, keeping in mind that not disclosing also means that the worker may not be eligible for accommodations at work,” he said.
Individuals who do share this information during interviews might fear discrimination (in the form of no job offer). Even so, he considers it “especially vital” for people with ASD. “ASD or Asperger’s are often considered ‘hidden disabilities’ because they are often not immediately observable,” he said.
Beyond the interview process, tech companies must accept the soft-skill challenges that hires who are neurodivergent sometimes bring to the workplace, Allen said. “Neurodiverse individuals can be quite assertive with opinions and points of view, often struggle with reading nonverbal cues, and lose sight of the ‘big picture’ due to focus on details,” he said.
A Stronger Cybersecurity Team
Over the past several years, Bank of America has hired dozens of professionals who are neurodivergent into tech roles, said Craig Froelich, chief information security officer at the Charlotte, North Carolina-based financial services firm. The group has the highest rate of job-offer acceptance and a near 100 percent retention rate, Froelich said.
Cybersecurity needs the problem-solving skills of people who are neurodivergent, he said. “You’re trying to anticipate the actions of an adversary, and being able to do that means having the best and brightest minds around the table,” he said.
He recalled a conversation some years back with a Bank of America cryptographer, a “spectacular” employee who holds several security-related patents. One day, in the middle of a casual chat, she revealed to Froelich that she was neurodivergent. “I was taken aback because I didn’t even know what that meant,” he said.
After that, the cryptographer, who is on the autism spectrum, has dyslexia and ADHD, asked Froelich to send information on topics for discussion in advance of a meeting; as a person who is neurodivergent, it would help her better prepare for meetings.
The conversation made Froelich wonder how many employees identified as neurodivergent, but not publicly. He brought up the topic at an all-hands meeting with his 3,000 employees. After the meeting, his inbox flooded with replies from people who were neurodivergent or had neurodivergent family members interested in cybersecurity as a career. “I realized pretty quickly that neurodivergent teammates were already part of our workforce,” he said.
The cybersecurity sector as a whole, he added, needs two and a half to three million people to fill the skills gap by the end of this year. “I wanted to see if we could tap into this as a new pipeline for recruiting talent,” Froelich said. “That’s where the journey began.”
Bank of America partners with Philadelphia-based Neurodiversity in the Workplace to recruit and hire neurodivergent people. Working with the organization, Bank of America has adjusted some recruiting and interviewing practices to suit the needs of neurodivergent people. For instance, interviewers ask clear, close-ended questions (answered with a yes or no) in order to extract the best information from neurodivergent candidates “and really unlock the powers they bring to the table,” Froelich said.
Over the course of a week, neurodivergent candidates also complete a series of projects so hiring managers can see how they relate to peers and to the project. Some adjustments, for instance training managers to frame and ask questions in a very specific way, have improved the hiring process for all employees, he said.
“I have an innate ability to understand extremely complex processes in a fraction of the time that it takes others.”
Once on board, support for some include quiet places to work, noise-cancelling headphones and an employee resource group to support neurodiversity.
Froelich envisions the program expanding to include career pathing for neurodivergent talent. “We’re always thinking about how to do more, but I want to be thoughtful,” he said. “We are talking about real people and their lives, and I want to make sure that we are doing this right.”
Such supports have helped employees like Carly Ott forge stable and successful careers. Ott, who has been diagnosed with autism, has worked at Bank of America for 11 years. Prior to that, her longest engagement at any company had been about 18 months. “I’d get hired, identify all the process gaps, improve them, get bored, then find an entirely different job in an entirely different industry,” said Ott, now vice president and senior operations project manager at Bank of America.
Ott credits her tenure to two factors, one of which is her own talent. “I have an innate ability to understand extremely complex processes in a fraction of the time that it takes others,” she said. “I can not only grasp the big picture but slice and dice requirements to cover all of the nuances,” to the point where she has trouble separating strategy from tactics. “In my brain, they’re the same,” Ott said.
The other is Bank of America’s “incredibly supportive” leadership team. “They’re cognizant that communication differences may exist, and we have a two-way open-door policy to bring up possible miscommunications openly,” she said.
A Sense of Belonging
Out of New Relic’s 2,200 global employees, 10 percent or 235 people, say they are neurodivergent or allies of the neurodiverse community, said Tracy Williams, chief people and diversity officer at the San Francisco-based developer of cloud-based software. “New Relic strives to embed belonging throughout the employee lifecycle,” Williams said.
It starts with the job interview. New Relic’s HR people organize a “candidate’s choice” interview that connects candidates to an existing employee in a community for which they feel an affinity, or whom they feel represents them. “The first people you meet are essential to fostering a sense of belonging,” Williams said. “Through candidate choice interviews and other innovative practices, we are working to ensure that talented candidates start to feel a sense of comfort and belonging even before their first day,” she said.
Management touches to further that sense of belonging include a focus on micro-interactions. Employees can ask their managers for support in gaining the floor during a meeting, taking time to process feedback, or blocking out uninterrupted time to work.
Accommodations reinforcing the sense of belonging include large meetings enabled with closed captioning. Employees can request live captioning during video meetings. The company strives to make lighting adjustable wherever possible in work spaces, conference rooms and drop-in spaces, Williams said.
Different workspace configurations, from collaborative areas with modular furniture to small spaces for quiet work, meet the needs of all workers. Wellness rooms in many global offices also offer completely private spaces to take a break, she said.
“Through candidate choice interviews and other innovative practices, we are working to ensure that talented candidates start to feel a sense of comfort and belonging even before their first day.”
One of New Relic’s five employee resource groups, Neu Relics, was created in 2018 by neurodivergent employees to support the neurodiverse community and allies. The group hosts talks, events and workshops for the entire company, and plans bigger events for Mental Health Awareness Month each May. This year, the group brought in a consultant to host a company-wide workshop on managing stress and burnout.
After listening and tuning into the conversations from the ERG, New Relic management offered all employees a week off, called Relic Recharge Week, in early August. “The daily kindnesses that neurodiversity awareness brings are an important part of the experience at New Relic,” Williams said.
A Useful Partner
JPMorgan Chase piloted Autism at Work in Delaware with four initial employees. By their sixth month of employment, the four worked 48 percent faster and were as much as 92 percent more productive than their neurotypical peers, said Ramon Heredia, Autism at Work program lead for JPMorgan Chase’s Chicago market, which has 20 employees who are neurodivergent. The four employees were also more likely to check in daily with their managers to chart progress and spot points for improvement.
That initial success prompted the bank to expand the program. The bank now employs about 250 people through the Autism at Work program, a group that boasts a 90 percent annual retention rate. Their roles range from personal banker to managing director to equipment operators like Heather Austin.
“It all goes to their capabilities and what they’re interested in,” said Heredia, stressing that neurodiversity is a broad spectrum. “When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” he said.
How to Accommodate Neurodivergent Employees
- “Be direct in communication. Provide agendas and presentations in advance for people to prepare for meetings. Make sure fonts contrast with backgrounds and the most important information is at least 18-point type. These small things make interactions easier for everyone and can make a huge difference for your colleagues who are on the outside edges of the neurodiversity bell curve.” — Carly Ott, vice president and senior operations project manager, Bank of America
- “Look at your internal culture. Do you have training in place for all leaders to look at different abilities and differences as a benefit to your company? Also, do you have a solid accommodations process that will assist those with differences to fulfill and meet their potential as opposed to discouraging them from even asking? Most disability accommodations cost a company less than $500, and for autism that drops to less than $100 if not free.” — Carly Ott, Bank of America
- “Much of the hiring comes down to the interview and job posting. Many job postings out there are tone-deaf as to what skills are needed and who should apply (i.e., those infamous “entry level” postings that require 3+ years’ experience). The interview process doesn’t have to be stressful, either! If there aren’t five people watching your screen after you are hired, you shouldn’t judge somebody on how they code in front of five people.” — Scott McKell, software engineering consultant, Salt Lake City, Utah
Working with Rangam, the bank has adjusted its interviewing and onboarding process for neurodiverse candidates. They first tour the working floor to observe the kind of work they would do, and inspect the office environment to see if it might trigger sensitivity issues. “We have a conversation with the candidate about how they feel about the role and the environment,” Heredia said. “We have a huge understanding of the importance of accommodations.”
Interview questions are trimmed down; for instance, an interviewer might ask about a candidate’s last two years of experience, rather than the broad “tell me about yourself” question. They also avoid hypothetical questions in favor of direct questions related to work experience, education and transferable skills.
“Companies should really be looking at hiring a neurodiverse workforce. They’ll find an untapped pipeline of simply brilliant people — highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented.”
Once hired, on-the-job accommodations range from noise-cancelling headphones, low lighting, seating in low-traffic areas, stress balls (palm-sized rubber balls that can alleviate stress when squeezed), and even a raccoon tail for employees to simulate petting of a housepet. During reviews, representatives from Rangam might sit in to help talent understand what’s needed to progress. “Sometimes they feel more comfortable because of the relationship” with Rangam, Heredia said.
Neurodivergent employees can quickly become subject-matter experts, prompting colleagues to regard them as invaluable resources, Heredia said. Their presence has encouraged some employees to speak openly about their own diagnoses too. “They come forward and say, ‘I’ve been struggling with this, because I’ve never felt comfortable about disclosing, but I do now because of the shift I see in the culture,’” Heradia said.
Eight thousand JPMorgan Chase employees and managers have completed an autism awareness course, which trains managers on best management practices for neurodivergent employees. One example: Breaking down instructions and questions to basic components, so they may be easily understood. “These things don’t require a massive change to the business, and they end up being beneficial for everyone, not just neurodivergent individuals,” he said.
Neurodivergent employees also benefit from support circles consisting of a job coach, a buddy or community mentor to help them navigate company culture, as well as the larger neurodivergent community — either a formal cohort or other people who were previously hired through the program, Heredia said.
“Companies should really be looking at hiring a neurodiverse workforce,” Heredia said. “They’ll find an untapped pipeline of simply brilliant people — highly educated, highly capable, detail-oriented. With everything you read about companies struggling to find and keep great talent these days, it just makes business sense.”
ADHD@Work: Initiative from the Attention Deficit Disorder Association: Help for companies that employ adults with ADHD.
Workplace Inclusion Now: Nonprofit Autism Speaks’ employment system.
SourceAbled: Tools to tap and recruit unique talent.
Neurodiversity Hub: Tools for tech companies to recruit, hire and retain talent.
Blog and Tools: From the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace: Supports for neurodiverse job candidates and employers.