Intellectual Diversity in the Workplace

SuccessThis past week, Shema Kolainu- Hear our Voices curated a presentation by Dr. Stephen Shore, member of ICare4Autsim’s advisory council and an Adelphi University professor who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the topic of career success with autism spectrum disorder. As Dr. Shore pointed out, the success of a candidate depends on how well their strengths are matched to their occupation.

Intellectual differences are becoming a more familiar subject across the world, and now employers are beginning to recognize the importance of understanding all kinds of minds. Advocacy is increasing for those with developmental disorders as it becomes apparent how many people have struggled with coping alone.

Currently, a number of companies actively recruit workers who are on the autistic spectrum for tasks suited to their mental abilities. These include Freddie Mac, ULTRA Testing, and software company SAP AG. These strengths include attention to detail, vast knowledge of specific subjects, and tendencies to not over-socialize during work hours.

In some ways similar to affirmative action for minorities, workers with intellectual disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and ADHD are striving to be recognized and given a fair chance to succeed like everyone else. With estimates ranging from 1 in 68 to as many as 1 in 50, the issue is generating more buzz as autism diagnoses continue to become more prevalent.

Freddie Mac has created an internship program for those with autism spectrum disorder that places interns into paid positions within the fields of information technology, enterprise risk management, and the mortgage loan business. The company has placed several interns into permanent full time positions over the past four years, and praise these students for they analytical skills. Some of Freddie Mac’s managers have even realized after working with the interns that they themselves may have autism spectrum disorder.

An intellectual disability is usually not as obvious as a difference in race, gender, or physical handicap, so it has been an arduous process to achieve special recognition for those with brain differences. Many colleges and workplaces have actively worked for many years to include women and minorities in order to promote diversity, for example, but the application process is far more vague when it comes to mental diversity. Fortune refers to this struggle as “the next civil rights movement.”

Regular employment has been shown to improve the lives of adults with autism. According to a study at Vanderbilt University, adults on the autistic spectrum who were engaged in work demonstrated improvements in their behavior and daily living skills.

Integration into the workplace presents special challenges for those on the autistic spectrum, so they themselves must be up to the task. They must be aware of their own mental differences and work to interact with their colleagues and supervisors in the best possible way while managing their tasks efficiently. This includes choosing when and how to disclose their disorders to managers and co-workers.

Employers also face the challenge of how to recruit candidates with the right skills, without excluding individuals with neurological disorders who may function quite well when given the right framework. An autistic person who averts their eyes during an interview, for example, could be overlooked for an IT position that they could excel at despite being shy.

Just like physical diversity, a rainbow of different mental abilities are found in all people. If these are embraced and actively included in our society, it will not only improve the lives of those with developmental disabilities, organizations will often benefit from the contributions of those who see the world from a different perspective.