Employers large and small are beginning to deal with a major demographic shift: the surge in the neurodiverse workforce, made up of workers with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome and other differences in learning and mental health.
In particular, the number of people with autism entering the workforce over the next 10 years and beyond is on the rise, with growth crossing racial, ethnic and geographic boundaries. For example, in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in 166 children. In 2021, their estimate rose to 1 in 44 children. In 2019, researchers at Drexel University have estimated that between 700,000 and 1 million young people with autism are expected to turn 18 in the next decade. Currently, the unemployment rate for people with autism remains high, with some estimates reaching over 80%.
Since the early 2010s, a network of major employers has developed targeted employment initiatives and protocols to better integrate this workforce into their businesses. These programs are designed to address the challenges these individuals typically face in the hiring process and to target their positive skills and career orientation. As a result, these companies enjoyed job attributes such as high work attendance rates, work appreciation, and company loyalty.
The increased profile of disability, equity and inclusion functions at major employers is already causing companies to think about forms of diversity beyond race and gender. But the number of companies involved in neurodiversity hiring initiatives today is modest, as is the number of workers participating. What can we learn from companies that have successfully integrated these programs, and how can companies that lack the resources for dedicated programs make real progress in integrating neurodiverse employees into their organizations?
Internal Neurodiversity Hiring Programs
Many large employers, including SAP, Microsoft, EY, JPMorgan Chase and Ford Motor Company, are part of the “Neurodiversity @ Work Roundtable”, a collective of leaders who come together to discuss and implement neurodiversity hiring programs .
Microsoft’s neurodiversity hiring program, launched in 2015, was one of the first. Neurodiverse candidates can send their CV to a dedicated email address and can be invited to a four-day skills assessment at the Microsoft campus in Redmond, where they can demonstrate their talent to hiring managers in a non-personal interview setting. conventional. According to Microsoft’s Neil Barnett, once a candidate is hired, they are offered a job coach from The How Skills, a Seattle-based nonprofit that specializes in supporting workers with disabilities. The job coach is in contact with both the employee and the team leader. The manager and other team members are offered optional training sessions on autism and other neurodiverse conditions. Microsoft also gives each new hire in the program access to the broader resource group of employees with disabilities and assigns them an internal mentor, often an employee volunteer who has a friend or family member with autism.
The roughly 40 other companies that make up the current roundtable have neurodiversity employment protocols similar to Microsoft’s. The roundtable continues to add companies, especially technology companies (for example, VMware and Salesforce have launched initiatives over the past two years). Other large companies, including Lee Container and Stanley Black & Decker, have launched structured neurodiversity initiatives without being part of the roundtable.
At the same time, the number of workers in all roundtable companies remains low. Barnett, a roundtable leader, told me he estimates about 1,000 positions have been filled by these employers combined, though he pointed out that the pace of hiring is accelerating.
Neurodiversity Workforce Intermediaries
For companies that are unable to launch their own neurodiversity employment initiatives, there is a new sub-sector of neurodiversity workforce intermediaries. These private sector companies are implementing neurodiversity workforce protocols in partnership with employers of all sizes, dramatically increasing the number of participating companies and workers. Additionally, they are introducing entrepreneurship to the employment system for adults with developmental differences, which has needed this energy and creativity for some time.
More than 40 neurodiversity workforce intermediaries now operate across the United States. Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, Next for Autism and EvoLibri were among the first to appear in the early 2000s. They have been joined in recent years by the employer partnerships of Autism Speaks, Autism Workforce, Meristem, SourceAbled, Inclusively, Neurodiversity Pathways, Potentia, NeuroTalent Works, and Zavikon, to name a few. With the predicted increase in the number of neurodiverse workers will come an increasing number of their family members within companies, and so far they have been the main drivers of the employer partnerships established thus far.
These intermediaries have different areas of intervention but certain common characteristics distinguish them from traditional providers of employment services for people with disabilities. They are entrepreneurial companies, founded by people with business backgrounds and contacts and an understanding of hiring and retention processes. They are employer-oriented and focus on jobs that companies are struggling to fill. They make individual placements, but in the context of ongoing partnerships with employers and work structures. They emphasize productivity gains for employees and use a revenue model primarily based on fee-for-service paid by employers.
Potentia, for example, asks employers to identify job categories for which they have had difficulty finding or retaining employees, and then asks them to reserve one or more of those positions for neurodiverse workers. Potentia partners with the employer to establish a recruitment process that identifies qualified neurodiverse candidates and a hiring process that allows candidates to demonstrate their skills, “since many of our candidates struggle in the interview process traditional,” CEO Jeff Miller told me.
Through its core product, STARS (Spectrum Training Recruitment and Support), Potentia helps establish onboarding and support structures within the recruiting company, including job coaches, mentors, ongoing guidance and neurodiversity training for managers. It offers these structured support programs to participants for 90 days or however long it takes to reach a point of self-reliance. It also seeks to build the support network outside of the workplace, with family members and friends recruited as part of a support network.
Potentia’s current client base includes major employers in various stages of program development, including energy giants Chevron and Baker Hughes. Although most early internships were in IT, Miller encourages employers to include non-technical roles. Potentia has placed over a dozen workers in 2021 and expects to more than triple that number in 2022. “It’s a gradual process; good partnerships with employers can take months or even years to set up,” Miller told me.
Another intermediary, Zavikon, relies on protocols similar to those of Potentia: alternative interview templates to demonstrate skills, neurodiversity training for company staff, and a set of in- and out-of-house supports. outside the company. Like Potentia, they are built on the value proposition that companies can make the most of neurodiverse talent through structured and intentional effort.
Zavikon uses an industrial staffing model. They recruit and assess workers to create a Neurodiverse Worker Registry, use this registry and other outreach activities to help employers find talent for hard-to-fill positions, and receive payments from employers for job placements. This model is complemented by Zavikon’s employer training and worker supports tailored to each company.
Similarly, NeuroTalent Works does individual placements of neurodiverse workers, but as part of a company’s broader neurodiversity hiring initiatives. “Specific supports and training will differ between companies and neurodivergent workers, but without them individual placements will often not be successful for either the worker or the employer,” Jessica Lee, executive director and co-founder, told me. NeuroTalent Works has steadily increased its employer engagements to approximately 30 companies.
Raising the employment rates of neurodiverse adults and adults with developmental differences more broadly will require a combination of strategies in the years to come. Some organizations may create their own internal hiring programs. For others, intermediaries can be strategic partners, responding to the demographic, social, and economic forces that drive neurodiversity employment forward. In any case, as the number of neurodiverse people entering the workforce increases, employers must respond to the growing interest in neurodiversity employment from employees, shareholders, and customers.