The Value of Neurodiversity

“Not all the features of atypical human operating systems are bugs.”

Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity

I knew I was different early on. From the corners of playgrounds I memorized the movements of other children engaged in social play like a PhD student conducting research on the social behavior of adolescents.

Now I am an adult. I am a woman working in the tech industry. I am a recruiter. And I am neurologically different.

My career requires me to seek out strangers, build rapport, create relationships, and produce sustainable hires for kick-ass start-ups. How did that come to be? Why would I be good at a job that requires me to actively socialize when I spend my life in observation mode?

Hopefully, my personal story from the social outsider’s perspective will widen your point of view on the importance of having such individuals in your company, and in your life - those who see the world through a different lens.

First of all, what does it mean to be neurologically different? A common error I hear is that neurodiversity is having a group of people with different personalities. This is a common misnomer, but not without a shade of truth. If you are neurologically different, I would guess it might impact your personality, but it may also impact your motor skills, physical senses (touch, hearing, vision, smell, and taste), speech, thought process, attention span, the way in which you receive and organize information, and more. Neurodiversity is known to include autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, as well as conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and social anxiety. Unfortunately, all of these neurological differences are viewed as disabilities, and a disability by definition is a limitation. When the world discusses differences as limitations, it is inevitable that the employers would see these limitations as weaknesses or red flags.

I know this from personal experience as a recruiter trying to match the right candidates to the right companies. I recall having more than one candidate complete the interview process only to not be extended an offer because they weren’t outspoken enough, outgoing enough, or because they seemed “odd.” Sure, some of those candidates truly might not have been a great fit, but more than one of them would have made strong contributions to the company they interviewed with because they had the necessary skill set to be successful.

When companies only hire candidates with the same background, communication style, and strengths that are already present at a company, you get a room full of employees who see problems from the same angle - one great singular perspective. For example, when you only hire outspoken individuals, you get a room full of employees who speak over each other. The quiet person in the group (like myself) is observing the behaviors of the others. We see the body language, reactions, and hear what questions are skipped over without answers, which individuals are likely to interrupt you, or how different people explain their points. Also, an individual with Asperger’s or autism might be less likely to be distracted by everyday small talk, and instead focused on solving complex problems for far longer than most individuals, and able to find inconsistencies in work. Those struggling with depression and anxiety might be better at seeing weaknesses and articulating potential risks in a decision making process. Without incorporating such minds into a company’s workforce, a competitive edge is lost.  

There are big brands who have taken notice to the advantage of a neurologically diverse workforce. SAP, Freddie Mac, and Microsoft are a few of organizations devoting internships, re-vamped work spaces, and tech positions for individuals on the autism spectrum. Non-profits like Launchability are working to help train and fill these tech roles as the demand for specialized skill sets in testing, quality assurance, and data services grows. Launchability is part of the 5000 Initiative, aiming to introduce 5,000 individuals with autism into the tech workforce by 2020.  

Recently I was able to attend an employment information session hosted by AASCEND, a coalition for education, networking, and development geared towards adults on the the autism spectrum. Two young adults introduced themselves to me, and as they looked away from my direction we discussed their enrollment together in a software testing program. One man in the program had been coding since he was 12 years old. A woman I was introduced to had entered her senior year of biology carrying a 4.0 GPA. She stayed several feet away from me as we discussed her need for a mentor in the biotech industry. Each of these young adults with autism were achieving leaps and bounds within their education, but the body language and social skills we often see in a confident, high performing student is not available to them. This highlights the importance of needing employers to focus on skill set. If someone has the skills, is able to perform a job, but isn’t hired because an interview panel feels irked by what is different, we are doing ourselves and our teams a disservice. We leave hardworking, overachievers behind because they are not mirroring our learned social behavior. Safe decisions are often made based on the discomfort we feel about the unknown. But when has comfort ever fostered innovation? In such a mode, we stop viewing potential, we lack vision; and most importantly, we lose the people who see the world in pictures, patterns, and with sensitivity.

With every candidate passed on for lacking the social butterfly gene, I can not help but think of Lee Felsenstein. You might be reading this blog post from an evolved version of the early portable computer. It was Felsenstein’s designs that allowed for Osborne I, the first successful portable computer, to be available to a large market. Without his designs there would have been limited social impact, something Felsenstein cared deeply for. We know him for processor technology, but what we know less about is Felsenstein’s battle with depression forcing him to drop out of Berkeley, his obsessive compulsive tendencies, and his Asperger’s. In his writing of My Path Through the FSM and Beyond, Felsenstein says, “In kindergarten, during recess I would take a ball and walk to the farthest removed corner of the yard, stand a few feet from the wall and throw the ball, let it bounce one and catch it, then repeat, for the whole period. People were threatening, I had concluded, though I was still able to function among them.” Even though he was once a child, escaping to the far corners of social settings, Felsenstein grew to care about social issues and the advancement of technology. Regardless of his challenges, he does not see Asperger’s as an illness “as it provides me with a basis for a kind of concentration and visualization that has served me well.”