“On the spectrum: WPI prof urges neurodiversity in tech hiring” Worcester Telegram & Gazette

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By Scott O’Connell, Telegram & Gazette Staff
Feb 26, 2019 at 7:05 PM – WORCESTER – Jay Cahill, co-founder of Bluefin Technology Partners in Worcester, wouldn’t say no to a job applicant who might be a little different.

“We’re looking for folks who have the right experience,” he said, including neurodiverse people. “I’ve worked with a number of people who have been on the (autism) spectrum. Many of them have been great at solving complex problems.”

A new report from a professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute makes the case that neurodiversity, which encompasses a range of disorders including autism, dyslexia and ADHD, should be acknowledged and embraced by employers, particularly in the tech industry. Many neurodiverse professionals, while in need of special accommodations in some cases, are very good at specialized, high-skill work, and add to the diversity companies should be trying to cultivate in their workforce, argues Eleanor Loiacono, whose article was published recently in MIS Quarterly Executive.

By fostering an environment where employees are free to be openly neurodiverse, businesses could also more effectively provide accommodations for those workers’ disorders to help them be even more productive, she said.

“You already see a lot more companies realizing that, especially in the high-tech area,” said Ms. Loiacono, a professor of management information systems. “They’re realizing what talent they can bring in.”

But neurodiversity is not yet the protected class some other personal identities are, like race, religion, gender, and sexuality, she pointed out; companies are “very much exploring it and testing it out” at this point, she said, by mentioning it over social media or in some cases their websites.

As much as he supports the hiring of neurodiverse employees, for example, Mr. Cahill said there’s no real policy for it for now at his company, which currently has a staff of 11 people, none of whom are openly neurodiverse.

“It’s been left unsaid – I’d feel it to be unethical to ask them about that,” he said, although he added Bluefin “doesn’t discourage discussion” of the topic.

Nancy Schwartz, co-director of adult services and MRC/employment project coordinator at the Watertown-based Asperger/Autism Network, said while overall the neurodiverse community “wants to feel comfortable being who they are,” many people still prefer not to be open about their difference at their workplace.

“I think most people probably do not disclose (it),” she said. “They may feel there is still a stigma about it. There just hasn’t been a real history of (companies) reaching out to people who are on the spectrum.”

But that is changing little by little she said; some companies, including Dell EMC in Hopkinton, are now actively recruiting neurodiverse job candidates and training their existing staff to better accommodate those potential employees.

While it ultimately depends on the person and where he or she falls on the autism spectrum, workers with sensory issues sometimes function best in a quiet workspace, according to Ms. Schwartz. Some may do better with an adjusted schedule and/or written as opposed to verbal communication with managers as well.

Simply dealing with the procedure of trying to get a job can be a struggle for many people with autism, Ms. Schwartz added; “someone on the spectrum could really have a hard time in the (traditional) interview process,” she said, which is why some companies are also trying out alternative ways of evaluating prospective job candidates who fall in that category.

Just how well-represented neurodiverse people are in the high-tech field is not easy to determine, according to Huimin Ren, a PhD student who assisted Ms. Loiacono with her report.

“There’s not too much data out there,” she said, which is why they decided to focus on what companies were saying online about neurodiversity to get a handle of how the issue is playing out in the corporate world.

While they found the largest tech companies like Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft were the ones that most often mentioned it on social media, according to their study overall only 12 of the 39 Fortune 500 companies they looked at had tweeted about neurodiversity over a 30-day span.

If companies can’t outright ask if their employees are neurodiverse, Ms. Loiacono said, they can at least use their corporate voice to create a welcoming environment for them, “sharing that it matters to them on their website,” for example.

“It’s seeing yourself (as a neurodiverse person) in the company,” she said, noting in her report the companies observed in her study all mentioned their support of diverse races, religions, gender identities, and sexual orientations, but not neurodiversity.

Scott O’Connell can be reached at Scott.O’Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG