Future Goals: Embracing Neurodiversity at Work

by Diana Drake

When Georgia Tech business major Daniel Lee first met fellow student Kurt Vogel, he wasn’t sure how to deal with him.

Vogel, a 26-year-old from Decatur, Georgia, was born with a birth defect in the brain that causes intellectual disabilities. As his campus peer mentor, Lee began spending time with Vogel — and a lifelong friendship blossomed. It’s a relationship that has changed the way Lee treats people with different neuro capabilities. “I would try and coddle them, speak slower, like your usual stereotypical behaviors. Hanging out with Kurt made me realize how stupid I was,” Lee told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The Kurt I got to know loves life. He is happy, cracks jokes and hanging out with him makes me happy. I see him figuring out so much in life.”

Autism and Unemployment

Vogel is one of seven seniors graduating this month from Georgia Tech’s first class for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The class, called EXCEL, is one of a growing number of programs at colleges and universities across the country designed to help people with disabilities get academic degrees and certificates that will boost their chances of finding jobs and living more fulfilling lives after high school, which is when long-term prospects often dwindle.

A total of 140 neuro-diverse students are enrolled in what’s called inclusive post-secondary education at one of Georgia’s public institutions, and their futures look bright. Among previous students in the programs, 75% of them are employed or continuing their education, according to the AJC. Programs like the one Vogel is a part of are important because the number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in 59 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and the odds are against them going to college and working. Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism are unemployed, according to the CDC.

As the number of people diagnosed with autism grows, so does the recognition that those on the spectrum can make valuable contributions to the workplace. Many companies are now hiring more individuals on the spectrum because they understand that autistic adults can be valuable employees, and neurodiversity can be beneficial to the workplace. According to Popcorn for the People, a program that is part of the nonprofit Let’s Work for Good and supports employment for adults with autism, Ernst & Young, Ford and Microsoft are among those big-name companies with autism-hiring programs.

Hiring people on the spectrum requires a lot of support and training, often starting in high school. Many high school students with autism receive job training in their school districts beginning around age 17. Through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act law, those public-school services end at age 21. From there, students who aren’t enrolled in a specialized post-secondary education program, are either ready to enter the workforce or continue their training in various ways.

The reality is that it can take extra time to become job-ready. “People with developmental disabilities tend to have significant anxiety. That anxiety can lead to disruptions in the typical workday, to the point where work can’t continue,” said Tony Lesenskyj, founder of We Make, a nonprofit in Pennington, N.J., that aims to help people with developmental disabilities find jobs by nurturing hands-on skills and full-day shift work. In an article with the local Community News, Lesenskyj noted that landing real-world employment for young people like his 20-year-old son, who is autistic, can be very challenging.

“Since the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed, we now include more people under that umbrella term than ever before.” — Paul Shattuck

Improving these workforce opportunities, say the experts, requires a shift in thinking. Advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are championing the idea of inclusive employment that extends to neurodiversity. It’s really not that hard to be more inclusive, said Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli. The first step is to get rid of an “us versus them” mentality or a sense of “other,” and to get more comfortable around people who may process information or communicate differently than you do. Companies “may think there are a lot of accommodations required, but typically, the accommodations are pretty trivial,” Cappelli said in an interview with our sister site, Knowledge@Wharton. “The complication they’ve got is [other people] just feel uncomfortable around them. And the heart of that seems to be, frankly, the perception that people with disabilities are uncomfortable or in pain or struggling.”

About 70,000 teenagers with autism enter adulthood each year, according to Drexel University health management and policy professor Paul Shattuck. That translates to roughly 700,000 adults over the next 10 years who need jobs. “It’s big news,” Shattuck told K@W. “Twenty years ago when I started in this field, autism was a condition that few people had heard of unless they had seen the movie Rain Man. But since the diagnostic criteria for autism have changed, we now include more people under that umbrella term than ever before.”

Shattuck, who is director of the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, said he often tries to reframe the ideas around disabilities so that employers and co-workers see their differently-abled counterparts as equals, not objects of pity or sympathy. He said such conversations help everyone connect the dots and move past the stigmas. For example, people with autism often have repetitive physical behaviors, such as rocking back and forth, which may be off-putting to co-workers. But those co-workers must understand that repetitive movement is a form of fidgeting, a way of self-soothing the same kind of anxiety that everyone feels from time to time.

“We’re all human beings. We all have dreams to pursue and contributions to make,” Shattuck said. “Fundamentally, these conversations are about unleashing human potential and creating robust communities that are the kinds of communities and the kinds of workplaces that we all want to be a part of.”

‘What It Means to Be Human’

Shattuck thinks it’s “an exciting time” as more private-sector companies and public-sector agencies adopt initiatives to hire people on the autism spectrum. But hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is not something to do out of a sense of guilt or kindness, the professors emphasized. They want everyone, especially employers, to understand the deep benefits of having a diverse workforce. “This is not a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism; this is about having a more inclusive workforce because we value diversity in our society,” Shattuck said. “It’s about connecting with your customers.”

Vogel, who graduates April 27, already has a full-time job at the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University and will start in an administrative role. He told the AJC that he values the opportunity to attend college and be like any other student.

“It’s relationships and interacting with people,” he said. “Ultimately, I think that’s what it means to be human.”

Related Links

Conversation Starters

Gen Z is often credited for being the most inclusive group of humans ever to exist on the planet. It’s the generation that lives the principles of “no friend left behind.” When you enter the workforce, you will encounter a much greater amount of diversity than your parents or grandparents did. Would you feel comfortable working with differently-abled people? Do you believe that your neuro-diverse co-workers should be held to the same performance standards as everyone else? Why or why not?

Are you neuro-diverse? Have you been employed in a company or nonprofit? Sign in to KWHS and share your story in the comment section of this article.

This article alludes to the fact that hiring someone with autism might require a shift in thinking on the part of the employer, not just about inclusivity but also adopting new ideas about individual productive. What do you think needs to happen for more people on the autism spectrum to find meaningful employment?

3 comments on “Future Goals: Embracing Neurodiversity at Work

  1. I had never been a person who was aware about the potential of neurodiverse individuals and the different perspectives they could provide. I was never really exposed to neurodiverse individuals for them, and from the information I had at hand, I pitied them for being in those situations. Two life changing events led me to rethink the way in which I perceived neurodiverse individuals and those with disabilities.

    I moved to Dallas in 5th grade from Boston, and I really though that I was going to have a difficult time adjusting to the different environment and culture. However, so many of my new classmates made ,my transition seamless and they are still my friends. One of those friends was recently diagnosed with a severe case of ADHD in 10th grade. My friend was extremely discouraged because he thought that it meant that he was incapable of doing things other students our age could do. He got special treatment from his peers and teachers, and he did not want to feel pitied by other people. My friend was never really good at traditional school subjects like math, physics, and language arts. However, he always had a propensity for exceeding in the field of arts such as music production, graphic design, and even simple drawings. However, no one encouraged him to dig deeper into these skills and pursue different opportunities related to his interests. His parents, teachers, and friends (including myself) always pushed him to do better in school, instead of telling him to pursue his passions and refining his skills to become an expert at what he is passionate about. After my friend’s ADHD diagnosis, he became very reclusive and he started working on personal passion projects related to music production and graphic design. Everyone around him continued to nag him about doing well in school and start focusing on his academics, especially because he had ADHD and he needed to put in more effort.

    One day, another friend of mine had a sleepover birthday party and my friend who was diagnosed with ADHD was also there. He was working on his laptop in a small corner away from everyone. He left his MacBook Pro open, when he went to go get food. A couple of my friends and I took a glimpse of his laptop screen, and we saw some amazing logo designs and UI/UX prototypes for potential mobile applications. We asked him about it when he came back, and he blew it off like it was nothing. He got back to work. We were still amazed and continued to bother him about it due to our curiosity (and prevented him from doing amazing work). He finally gave in and told us what was going on. He told us “I felt really discouraged after I was diagnosed with ADHD, because it felt like I was not good enough to do certain things and I would always been seen as a damaged person who would need special accommodations to be on par with normal people.” He won’t on to explain that he decided to pursue his own passions and use graphic designing as a method of venting his frustrations. Eventually, he became very motivated and became extremely ingrained in his work. He started making logos and approaching various companies and individuals on Twitter, Instagram, and Discord to see how he could help them with his services. He started to make a lot of money and really enjoyed what he was doing.

    I realized that neurodiverse people just want to be treated like normal people. They do not want to feel like outsiders, even if we treat them really nicely. All he wanted was some encouragement and respect to pursue what he wanted. I began to see how valuable his skills were, and the immense value he could add to various individuals and companies with his set of skills. At that point, I wished I had encouraged him to pursue his passions earlier and not asked him to do something he was not passionate about. I felt very remorseful, so I found an opportunity where you can design mobile application mock-ups for an application idea you could have. I had a great idea for an app, so I went to my friend and told him that we could work together to build a prototype for an application and develop a business plan. I worked with him for two weeks, and I was amazed at the way his brain worked. He had come up with so many amazing ideas that could be beneficial to our idea and his through process was one that I had never witnessed before. I learned that maybe he is not a great academic scholar, but he is actually a lifelong learner who is willing to learn various different skills that are applicable to real world problems.

    When I visited India, I witnessed one of the greatest sights of inclusivity. My dad’s childhood friend always took us to unique restaurants, vacation spots, hotels, and resorts when we visited India. This time he took us to a restaurant called Mirchi and Mime in the city of Mumbai. Just another ordinary restaurant with spicy Indian food? No way! I was shocked when I walked in, because the restaurant only employed hearing and speech impaired individuals. They developed a simple system for customers to communicate with these employees. I was amazed by this and my family decided to take all of our distant relatives to the restaurant and raise awareness about employing people with disabilities. I was so glad I got to experience this and learn that with the right resources and training, people with disabilities can offer great value to customers and businesses.

  2. Reading through this article about neurodiversity reminded me of an unforgettable moment in my life. I had always noticed that the autistic children at my school were often made fun of, with words such as “retarded” carelessly thrown around. One of the conversation starters at the end of the article says, “Gen Z is often credited for being the most inclusive group of humans ever to exist on the planet.” However, considering the everyday actions of my fellow classmates, I don’t think we are inclusive enough.

    In eighth grade, my friend and I decided to turn our vague ideas for change into reality. For our independent study project, we chose to organize and plan an event for our autistic classmates where they could enjoy craft tables, cookies, and companionship. Weeks of careful planning had passed, and the day finally came. I remember being so excited that I woke up before my alarm (which never happened before!), carefully folded the white cotton t-shirts that were to be decorated later, and zoomed out the door.

    The party was a smashing success! We invited our teachers and friends to join too, and they added a warm and happy atmosphere to the room. Everyone decorated cookies, drew autism awareness puzzle pieces on t-shirts, and made crafts together. The typical man-made barrier separating people with and without autism had dissipated. Everybody seemed to be having a good time.

    I was approached by one of the teacher’s aides at the end of the party. She delivered a gift from the mother of one of the autistic children – a beautiful bracelet with a note that said “Your act of kindness means so much to me and my family. Thank you.” That was the day I learned the true meaning of community. Until then, I never really understood that even as a student, I could make a difference. I realized that my voice would be heard and be impactful.

    As Paul Shattuck puts it, “This is not [just] a charity act to do something nice for a person with autism…” It’s about social responsibility and having an inclusive community. We need to understand that we’re all human, and we all have something unique and different to offer. Someone once said that diversity is inviting people to a party; inclusion is dancing with them. It shows the importance of involving different people in our community to enrich all of our lives. I still treasure the bracelet I received and wear it often, and every time I do, I’m reminded of what we all can do to embrace diversity and make our society a better and more inclusive place to live in.

  3. I found it inspiring that Tony Lesenskyj, the founder of We Make, understood the anxiety of those with developmental disabilities. His focus on “nurturing hands-on skills and full-day shift work” likely comes from his experience with what kind of jobs can lessen this anxiety. Combining his expertise with innovative technology like data mining could help these individuals and their employers hone in on what kind of factors contribute to a more productive work environment. Shifting our views by embracing neurodiversity and erasing an “us versus them” mentality will also promote a more inclusive hiring practice. I wonder if these efforts can be made for other neuro-based conditions like in stroke victims or those with neurology injuries from accidents. The success of programs like EXCEL at Georgia Tech addresses a need for both the students and their potential employers.

    Reading about this training for employment reminds me of another pressing social issue, the need for better job training and opportunities for prisoners. In the US, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, holding 2.1 million people in a system that focuses on punishment instead of reformation. Many studies have shown that mass incarceration itself does not reduce crime and that wages available for workers plays a key role in determining the likelihood of someone committing a crime. Therefore, prisoners can have a better chance at social reintegration if they can find a job when they come out. However, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes that one in three adults have criminal records limiting them from jobs. Since we believe that these ex-convicts have poor moral character, we have passed 15,000 laws that work against them. Seeing how their records become their disabilities, we need to shift our thinking to lessen this stigma just like how we are changing our views about autism. If we can provide prisoners with more job opportunities, we will remind both them and us of what it means to be human.

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