Have We Taken A Wrong Turn In (Neurodiversity) Employment?

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Anthony Hopkins In 'The Remains Of The Day'
Near the end of “The Remains of the Day”, Stevens, the model of certitude throughout the novel and movie, comes to question his heretofore unquestioning service to Lord Darlington. How important it is for ongoing questioning of our individual and collective ideas of service and value.GETTY IMAGES

(Has the neurodiversity employment movement taken a wrong turn? Should it be reconsidering strategies, given the low numbers of placements and overall low unemployment rates? And if so, what are these strategies? This month’s Disability:IN conference raises these issues anew.)

We Should Not Be So Confident

Earlier this month, the annual Disability:IN conference, the major nationwide disability employment conference, brought more than 2000 attendees to Orlando. Florida— private employers, public entities, workforce intermediaries. And though Disability:IN covers all disabilities, the speakers, panels and lobby discussions reflected the ever-increasing presence of neurological differences—autism, severe ADHD, and other mental health and learning conditions.

“Five years ago when I first started attending the conference, ‘neurodiversity’ was a new term we were introducing business attendees to,” notes Jessica Lee, the executive director of NeuroTalent Works. “This year, neurodiversity was front and center during the conference and businesses were eager to connect and learn what strategies have been effective with our business partners.” Rebecca Beam, CEO of Zavikon, adds, “Our Zavikon staff connected with more than twenty companies in various stages of developing or implementing neurodiversity employment programs—well more than previous conferences. I was delighted to see the heightened profile of neurodiversity at the conference.”

Yet the activity and energy around neurodiversity at Disability:IN also calls to mind the ongoing contrast in 2023 between the activity/energy in the neurodiversity employment movement and the results in terms of placements. The numbers of participants in the large firm neurodiversity employment programs has not increased significantly in recent years (at roughly 2000-2500) nor have the numbers employed in the neurodiversity-focused businesses, university hiring initiatives, and civil service hiring programs. Most importantly, the employment numbers overall for adults with neurodiverse conditions appear to remain stubbornly low—though real-time data on neurodiverse employment continue to be elusive.

Changes of Course

Neurodiversity employment, as other areas of employment policy, requires constant questioning and evaluation to avoid wrong turns and to stay current. Following the Disability:IN conference I sought the views of three neurodiversity employment specialists who have been in the field for some years:

· Rob Austin of Ivey Business School (author of a number of the pioneering case studies in the early 2000s, and currently head of the neurodiversity employment program at Ivey).

· Hala Annabi of the University of Washington (author of widely-cited Autism @ Work Playbook, 2019, 2021, and Neurodiversity Playbook Engagement and Growth Series, 2023).

· Neil Barnett of MicrosoftMSFT+0.6% (one of the founders of the Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable in 2017, who remains as its lead).

None of them are willing to give up on current strategies, particularly the structured programs in large firms and autism-focused businesses as laboratories. However, they do single out new directions they would like to see the movement take. Below is a summary of some of their thoughts.

Rob Austin: Professor, Ivey Business School, Ontario, Canada


“We’ve been studying the neurodiversity employment movement since 2007, and are trying to take an objective view (we avoid membership in boards or advocacy groups). We currently have longitudinal data from about 20 organizations, including quite a few large companies, about their involvement in neurodiversity employment.

“Overall, I would say there has been a lot of progress in figuring out the practicalities of how to broaden employment opportunities for individuals with conditions that have historically masked their talents (neurodivergent people, specifically, especially people who identify as autistic). This is not to say that it is all figured out, or that every instance of a neurodivergent individual employed as part of such an initiative is successful.

“That said, there is clearly much more to do. The numbers employed via these programs remains a tiny percentage of the people who could benefit. Also, many of the people who have benefited from these programs are those with lowest support needs. We are not dipping very deep into neurodivergent spectrums. There are, though, many good mission-oriented social enterprises working on the problem of developing practical ways to improve this situation: for example, JoyDew in New Jersey, working on practical approaches to employ non-speaking people, and Autism Workforce in Illinois, working on making a range of skill level jobs accessible. Progress continues. Mission-driven social enterprises function as laboratories to develop practical approaches that de-risk certain activities for risk-averse for-profit public companies.

“As of today, I don’t think we are off-track, or that we have taken a seriously wrong turn (there have been many smaller wrong turns, just ask anyone involved in developing their programs, that is part of the learning process). But we are seeing growing pains or perhaps even a moment of hesitation. Maybe a loss of momentum, in some companies.

“There are multiple reasons for this. Some companies have lacked continuity in executive sponsors, champions, and key individuals. There is a case to be made that in many companies the programs have succeeded because of the heroic efforts and strong motivations of individuals—often people with a personal stake in the form of neurodivergent family members. These programs have yet to be integrated systemically into the processes and norms within the company (this could still happen even where it hasn’t yet — it’s also a problem common to all change initiatives). The broader business context has had an impact as well: the pandemic, and especially the difficulties tech companies have had as they emerged from the pandemic.”

Hala Annabi: Associate Professor, University of Washington

Annabi, Hala

“I think we have made good progress to advance neuro-inclusion in the workplace. Is it enough? Well no, we have a long way to go. I think it is important to remember that the movement is still young and the last four years presented many challenges that might have slowed growth. While we all hope to make fast and revolutionary changes to the workplace that improve the employment of neurodistinct people, in reality, workplace change and meaningful inclusion take place over time in an evolutionary fashion. To understand the true impact and the nature of the evolution of neuroinclusion in the workplace we must look at the advancement of the ecosystem as a whole, and a broader set of success indicators within any one organization.

“The neurodiversity hiring program is only one component of a complex ecosystem that needs to be in place to improve neurodiversity employment outcomes. This ecosystem includes (1) educational institutions and providers who build the capacity of neurodistinct adults for the workplace, (2) providers who have the right mix of skills to support neurodistinct workers and their managers and teams, (3) providers who can support the overall wellbeing and independence needs of employees, (4) advocates and their family units who are empowered to navigate the complex education and employment systems, and (5) employers who have the internal capacity to engage neurodistinct talent equitably.

“Within any one organization, it is important to go beyond the size of the hiring program as it is only one indication of the impact neurodiversity hiring programs are making to improve employment of the neurodistinct community. I do not think we know how the neurodiversity hiring programs affect the hiring of neurodiverse folks (especially those who wish not to disclose) in the organization at large. I would be interested in learning whether there are more neurodistinct folks who enter through the traditional recruitment processes. These outcomes are very difficult to measure. I would also want to know about the retention of pre-existing neurodistinct employees.

“We are at a unique moment in talent management history (shortage of workers, high levels of burnout and mental health challenges, pandemic impact overall) when talent management is forced to reassess their systems to be more flexible and customizable. Some refer to it as the human-centered approach to talent management. Many of these new concepts that HR professionals are grappling with are the same as the neurodiversity principles we employ in neurodiversity hiring programs. Among these principles: focus on strengths, follow the lead of the employee, focus on work outcomes (not work hours), challenge neurotypical normative expectations, train managers to be effective leaders of a diversity of people, clarify expectations, and communicate explicitly.”

Neil Barnett: Microsoft Director of Inclusive Hiring and Accessibility, Lead at Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable

Neil BarnettAASCEND

“I wouldn’t say that we’ve taken a wrong turn. Among major firms, interest is only growing. Each week I’m hearing from two to three companies who are in the process or thinking of developing a neurodiversity employment initiative.

“But it’s also true that we need to reassess on an ongoing basis. At Microsoft, as at other major firms, we’re moving to expand the range of jobs in our initiative. This means expanding from our initial focus on tech positions to positions in marketing, administration, retail.

“I believe what will have even greater impact is that we and other Roundtable members are moving to integrate the elements of our targeted programs to mainline practices throughout our organizations. If we are successful, no longer will the hiring and supports be so dependent on individual(s) within the organization who have championed the program (and who might be re-assigned or leave the company). Instead, these best practices of hiring and supports will be available to all employees.

“For example, the supports our program provides for our participants—mentorship, education of line managers in neurodiversity, appropriate accommodations to enable productivity on the job—would be available more widely. The range of neurological differences would be recognized.”

The Ecosystem, the Integration, and Beyond

Common strategies run throughout the reflections of these three neurodiversity experts: expanding the job categories beyond tech in the targeted programs; recognizing the role of neurodiversity-focused businesses as pilots; most of all, integrating the practices of the targeted programs into the broader organization.

To these, I would add two other ideas for course adjustments in 2023. The first involves civil service employment—an idea referenced elsewhere by Professors Austin and Annabi. Here in California, the state government and most municipalities have established “disability hiring” initiatives, with much celebration. New offices and budgets have been established, and staff hired. But the result in terms of actual hires of adults with disabilities, especially of adults with neurodiverse conditions, has been minimal. Individual government departments and hiring managers have not bought in, and executive leadership has not engaged.

This Fall, California’s Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) is launching a civil service initiative informed by its sector-based Pathways to Success program. Mark Erlichman, DOR Deputy Director who oversees Pathways, has been in the field for many years, and is very aware of how complicated civil service employment can be, particularly for those first seeking an appointment. He promises an iterative effort with the intentionality and supports similar to those of the large-scale private sector efforts. This is an initiative worth tracking.

The second potential course adjustment involves experimenting with forms of public service employment. Public service employment—job creation in the public sector—has been in disrepute since the flawed federal public service employment program under CETA, in the 1970s. Public service employment on a broad scale is not feasible or desirable today. But a program targeted at adults with intellectual and developmental differences is worth testing, to determine whether valued work can be identified.

Perhaps most of all, neurodiversity employment in the last half of 2023 needs to avoid a complacency that has begun to creep in, and be aggressive in questioning. We are far from arriving at a time of relaxation. One of the most compelling characters in recent literature is the head butler, Stevens, in the novel The Remains of the Day. For many years, he serves Lord Darlington and Darlington Hall in an unquestioning manner. At the end of the novel, though, he expresses some regret, and wonders what he might have done differently. We don’t want to wait in our questioning until the remains of our days.

I served as California Employment Development Department director, and today am Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and Fellow with Burning Glass Institute, and research director with the California Workforce  Association. My newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act (2021).

Michael Bernick