HR departments are increasingly interested in hiring neurodivergent employees, such as those on the autism spectrum. They have valuable skills but are often underemployed or unemployed, said Anthony Pacilio, vice president of Neurodiverse Solutions at CAI, a technology services firm in Allentown, Penn.
CAI, which has some 6,500 employees, recently rebranded its Autism2Work program as CAI Neurodiverse Solutions because of the increasing demand for neurodivergent workers from its clients.
It's not just the private sector showing more interest. The U.S. government created a Neurodiverse Federal Workforce pilot program in 2020. The government believes that neurodivergent individuals have the skills, attention to detail and problem-solving ability to make them ideal candidates for federal jobs, especially in cybersecurity and data management.
In this Q&A, Pacilio explains how the CAI program works, the training that's involved and the business case for hiring neurodivergent individuals.
What is neurodiversity?
Anthony Pacilio: Neurodiversity is a term used to encompass neurological conditions such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, among others.
Why is there a special effort to hire neurodivergent people?
Pacilio: Neurodivergent individuals are an untapped workforce. Approximately 75% are underemployed or unemployed, and that's not because of their own doing. The interview process might not be conducive to somebody who is neurodivergent.
Why do some neurodivergent individuals not interview well?
Pacilio: That's a problem on our [the interviewer's] side. A neurodivergent individual may pause because they are thinking of the answer. And we [the interviewers] believe that 'You should know the answer and should spit it right out.' A [neurodivergent individual] may have a processing delay.
What is the business case for hiring neurodivergent individuals?
Pacilio: We talk about attention to detail and pattern recognition. You typically don't want everybody to think the same in the workforce. You want to have people who are unique and with different skill sets. But we have set aside a talent pool of extremely talented individuals who have gone through schooling and have not been employable. When you think differently, different solutions come out of that. What they are providing will be different from what you ever thought would be a solution for a specific problem. In QA [quality assurance] work, for instance, they can be 50% more productive than peers. They are so focused and detail oriented that they can go through a queue just one right after another.
Anthony PacilioVice president of neurodiverse solutions, CAI
Why are neurodivergent individuals mostly underemployed or unemployed?
Pacilio: We always look for the person who will look you in the eye, who's going to have that firm handshake. You may not get that with somebody who's neurodivergent. They may be looking to the left or looking to the right, but it doesn't mean that they're not listening. It doesn't mean that they don't understand. We have to get through our own biases and look … to their skill sets. Can you do Java? Can you do a playbook? Ask those types of questions, not 'Where do you see yourself in five or 10 years?' What we're trying to do is make sure that when we go into firms, we're upfront, we're giving them that awareness training. We're teaching them how to understand communication styles may be different between each person.
One of your services is teaching HR how to recruit and interview neurodivergent individuals?
Pacilio: Yes, but it is also awareness training for everyone working side-by-side with a neurodivergent individual. It's also teaching and ensuring that the managers and supervisors know how to provide feedback. There's a lot that goes into it.
How do you recruit neurodivergent individuals?
Pacilio: We are working with colleges and universities that may have programs associated with neurodiversity. We have partners, including the Autism Society of America, Easterseals and others. One of the greatest ways is referrals -- parents, guardians, advocates and others will refer people to us. During the pandemic, the talent pool has expanded because many of these jobs can be remote.
How do you prepare a business to work with neurodivergent individuals?
Pacilio: We do environmental site surveys, which involve going to a work location and ensuring that the particular site is advantageous to our candidate. We look at lighting, look at sound and scents. Do they need a screen reader or something that minimizes light from a screen? Can a light switch be dimmed or not? We can provide noise-canceling headphones, which is one of the most common accommodations that we make.
Do you conduct awareness training for fellow workers?
Pacilio: We try to make sure that they understand who they will be working with. Another part of this awareness training is building empathy. Some people will go through this awareness training or education and come out of it and say, 'I exhibit some of those traits.' Maybe they are neurodivergent and haven't disclosed it, and now they feel comfortable that their company or organization is implementing a program like this.
Many firms have established DEI or diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Do they usually include neurodiversity?
Pacilio: We are starting to get a seat at the table. DEI is a great way to integrate and implement a neurodiversity program. Every CEO with a DEI silo should be considering a neurodiverse workforce.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.