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Federal neurodiversity pilot plans to improve the lives of all feds

In September 2019, MITRE Corporation and several academic partners were awarded a grand prize of $300,000 from the Government Effectiveness Advanced Research Center challenge to establish a Neurodiverse Federal Workforce pilot, with the goal of assisting agencies in how to better attract, hire and retain talent on the autism spectrum.

That pilot ultimately partnered with Melwood, a nonprofit for recruiting employees with disabilities, and with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in June 2020 to take in and ultimately hire the first four candidates that were part of the pilot program.

Participants first spent one week being given access to agency data and extrapolating trends or insights from it. The agency then selected four candidates for a six-month fellowship at the agency, with the goal of getting hired to full-time positions when the pilot ends in June 2021.

“We find that it’s just a great opportunity for us to improve and expand employment, career opportunity at NGA especially, bringing in the best talent possible,” said Michael Hales, program manager for the pilot, told Federal Times.

That pilot focused on hiring autistic talent for cyber and data-centered roles, largely due to the fact that there are severe shortages of personnel to fill these kinds of roles at many agencies.

“The goal of the pilot is to help federal agencies understand how to recruit for, hire and support folks on the autism spectrum,” Teresa Thomas, program lead for Neurodiverse Talent Enablement at MITRE told Federal Times.

“Folks on the autism spectrum are the least employed of all disability groups. There’s a report out of Drexel a couple of years ago that of young adults, especially on the spectrum, 85 to 95 percent are under or unemployed.”

But while this particular pilot is geared toward helping agencies to create a better environment for autistic talent, the larger goal of the program is to benefit all neurodivergent and neurotypical employees.

Neurodivergence is a broad term to describe a variety of people whose brains work differently than what is considered the norm. This can mean autistic individuals, people with dyslexia, those with attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder and many others. Neurotypical describes any individual whose mental behaviors generally adhere to what is considered the norm in society.

The aim of neurodiversity is to have a workforce made up of all kinds of neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals, whose unique strengths and weaknesses can combine to create a better workplace and performance outcome.

And according to Thomas, the lessons learned from an autism-specific pilot — like teaching managers how to be more direct about expectations, encouraging mentors for new employees or teaching hiring officials how to recognize an applicant’s strengths outside of standard interviewing practice — will be valuable for all kinds of employees currently working at or looking to join an agency.

And all agencies already have autistic and other types of neurodiverse talent, whether they know it or not.

“It’s also a great learning opportunity for us to be more inclusive with the neurodiverse talent that we have,” said Hales. “We’re also looking at it in a strategic sense of how we can use resources at our agency differently or more inclusively to be able to bring all of our employees to be their best.”

“It’s not rocket science,” said Thomas, explaining that agencies can easily include that existing talent in efforts to improve hiring and the workplace.

For the NGA pilot, Thomas said that some of the greatest tools for success have been training managers and coworkers to better understand the needs of their autistic colleagues, supporting candidates through the federal hiring process and providing mentors for those candidates.

And the participants have also found a passion for the work they have been asked to do at the agency.

“I expected these individuals to be top-notch, and they are,” said Hales.

“But one thing that has kind of surprised me is that I know we have a lot of teammates in our agency that have children with autism or a sibling or a friend. And the pride in our workforce that our agency is going in this direction and the overwhelming support that they’re willing to give to help [the participants] succeed has really been kind of amazing to see.”

MITRE plans to use the pilot at NGA and its own efforts to increase neurodiversity to create a playbook for the federal and private sectors that informs best practices on neurodiverse hiring.

“I want agencies to feel comfortable with targeted hiring, and OPM actually encourages that, targeted hiring for specific disabilities, but agencies are afraid to break the rules and take those risks,” said Thomas.

“I want our playbook to be something that is widely available, and I would love there to be a system through which agencies can pick up a program like this pretty easily.”

For other agencies looking to up their neurodiversity initiatives, Hales advised that leaders put a team together of people at all levels and from a variety of departments to collaborate and strategize on what changes or improvements need to be made to existing cultures and programs.

“This is an effort that requires a lot of prioritization, but is also something that everyone wants to see happen,” said Hales.

April is National Autism Awareness Month which is intended to foster widespread education about and acceptance for people on the autism spectrum.

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