neurodiversity-talent-contingent-workforce.jpgPromoting the benefits of diversity and inclusion is a hallmark of the contingent workforce industry. In many ways, it’s not just a core tenet of our mission to help client organizations flourish through exposure to new perspectives, cultures, ideas or ways of innovating — it’s a passion. Some categories of diversity garner a lot of attention. Issues of fair practices involving race, gender and, most recently, sexual orientation shine brightly under the spotlight. Others, such as accommodating disabilities, attract less notice. We have written in detail about the advantages that exist across all layers of diversity, including disabled professionals. Now, as we prepare to attend the 2016 NMSDC Conference and Business Opportunity Exchange in Chicago this October, I’d like to discuss the exciting prospects of neurodiversity, which business leaders like Microsoft are exploring in hiring programs for autistic talent.

Autism and Neurodiversity

Many people still view autism as a brain disorder — some sort of defect or impairment. When you consider the contentious debates about its causes or the role some believe vaccinations play, you begin to recognize how nuanced and misunderstood the autism spectrum is.

Because autism affects the way people process and communicate information, businesses have been reluctant to recruit this talent. However, it’s imperative to understand that people with autism aren’t abnormal. They may require some accommodations and support, just as a person in a wheelchair might, yet their job performance and the quality of their work usually exceed expectations. For this reason, an Australian sociology student (herself on the spectrum) coined the term “neurodiversity.” Her intent was to demonstrate that brain variations are not abnormalities or aberrations. Philosophically, they are normal and should be respected the same way as differences in gender, race or orientation.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both terms that describe a group of complex departures in “neurotypical” brain development — what most people would call “normal.” In reality, normal in this context simply describes the brain functioning that takes place in the majority of humans, not that it’s superior or somehow proper.

In varying degrees, individuals on the spectrum can often be characterized by challenges with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communications, and repetitive behaviors. In extreme cases, cognitive impairments and sensory overload do occur. However, most autistic individuals are incredibly high performing and intellectually gifted. Their behavior may seem out of the ordinary, and yet they often excel in visual skills, music, math and art — sometimes surpassing their neurotypical peers. For that reason, and because repetitive tasks are comforts to them rather than obstacles, neurodiverse talent have proven to be amazing technology professionals. That’s why companies such as SAP and Microsoft are actively sourcing them.

Great Opportunities for Neurodiverse Talent and Employers

In Vauhini Vara’s excellent piece for FastCompany, “Microsoft Wants Autistic Coders,” she follows the journey of Blake Adickman, 26, who is employed in the Microsoft program. The article is enlightening and inspirational. It also shows how tech companies are making bolder efforts to recognize and capitalize on the unique capabilities of diverse talent. I highly recommend reading Adickman’s story. Here are some key background details.

Adickman initially attempted to conceal his condition when he was accepted to the Rochester Institute of Technology, known for its top-notch information technology curricula. Not only that, the school offered a special spectrum-support program for autistic students. Adickman enrolled and graduated with grades impressive enough to capture the interest of Amazon.

Amazon flew Adickman to their offices. The interview didn’t go well. Not long after, though, representatives from the support program at the Rochester Institute told the Adickman family about Microsoft’s unconventional initiative to recruit autistic professionals with technical skills. Blake was accepted. Why is Microsoft devoting such energy and resources to this effort? A lot of reasons. Foremost, of course, is the core benefit that all diversity efforts produce.

“The impulse to hire more autistic employees is based on the same premise as hiring, say, women and people of color,” Vara writes. “Doing so not only welcomes in a wider range of creative and analytical talent, but brings more varied perspectives into an organization, and makes for a workforce that better reflects the general population of customers.” Beyond that, a number of social, economic and employment factors are driving awareness.

  • In 2012, one in 68 children were diagnosed with ADS. That’s an increase from the 1980s, when figures settled around one in 10,000. Researchers believe the dramatic rise largely results from clinical advances that allow doctors to correctly diagnose more children on the spectrum.
  • Half of these children demonstrate average and above-average intelligence, and they will be entering the workforce soon. However, advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks estimate up to 80-percent unemployment rates for autistic talent.
  • “Now that autism diagnoses are on the rise,” Vara explains, “the state of the autistic workforce is attracting the attention of people who are in the position to change it: high-level corporate executives who happen to have autistic children and understand that, given the right setting, autistic people can not only thrive but can show off skills and traits that non-autistic people are less likely to have.” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has two special needs kids himself.
  • Companies who have welcomed autistic workers say they are ideally suited for tech roles: detail-oriented, intellectual and methodical.

How Contingent Workforce Experts Can Help Clients Capitalize on Neurodiverse Talent

Autistic talent have so much to offer in the way of productivity, critical thinking, exceptional technical skills and innovation. For contingent workforce programs, particular those focused on helping clients achieve mission-critical IT or engineering projects, neurodiverse talent are perfect candidates. And given the state of employment, many are available and eager to contribute. By mirroring key elements of the Microsoft initiative, contingent workforce program leaders can realize similar successes. Fundamentally, it’s just a different way of approaching accommodations.


Given the awkwardness and anxiety that some neurodiverse talent experience when questioned, changing up the interview process presents a supportive environment and productive interactions. Remember, many autistic candidates think on a very literal level. Communication must be structured in a clear manner.

The traditional application process at large firms like Microsoft involves resume screening, phone interviews, skills assessments (sometimes called “homework assignments”), onsite interviews with multiple stakeholders, on-the-fly problem solving scenarios and a slew of rapid-fire questions. For the neurodiverse, this becomes an overwhelming run through the gauntlet of corporate bureaucracy. Instead, try fashioning a special process similar to Microsoft’s.

  • Invite candidates to visit your facilities and those of the potential client.
  • Allow them to hang out, familiarize themselves with the overall layout of the premise and observe others working on projects.
  • Facilitate casual meetings with hiring managers for informal discussions. It’s a great opportunity for candidates to ask questions, allay fears and get a robust picture of what the assignment will entail.
  • Only at the end of this stage should more formal interviews occur, preferably with the managers the applicants have previously met.

“The goal,” Vara writes, “is to create a situation that is better suited to autistic people’s styles of communicating and thinking.” Of course, the hiring manager remains the person who will extend or reject an offer.

Pilot Program

In 2015, Microsoft’s director of inclusive hiring and accessibility worked with the neurodiversity program champions to design a small pilot program. While it may sound unorthodox, creating a pilot program as part of the contingent workforce solution could be ideal.

  • Take a project, or an aspect of a project, and create a separate team environment for the selected neurodiversity workers.
  • Give them a couple of weeks to work on the task with a small group and interact with managers.
  • Have an advocate from the contingent workforce program oversee the work and ensure that the talent have all the support they need.
  • The goal is to create an “open application process” where client hiring managers can identify the talent with appropriate skills, the ability to navigate the group’s social dynamics, and readiness to integrate into the wider workforce.


Many of the people overseeing the Microsoft effort have direct experience with autistic individuals. They are already familiar with and sympathetic to the challenges that confront neurodiverse talent. The company also brought in a mentor named Blake Konrady, an employment expert who specializes in matching disabled people with job opportunities. Dedicated mentors and advocates are instrumental to the success of neurodiverse programs. Here are some suggestions that contingent workforce leaders can consider.

  • Provide autism training for interested mentors in your company. Several groups and associations are happy to offer educational assistance.
  • Consider enlisting a specialist to oversee the program, either as an outside consultant for each client project or as a member of your team.
  • Create a sustainable environment where neurodiverse talent have the time they need to overcome certain frustrations and then return to their work.
  • Foster a culture of patience and instruction, not one where mentors perform tasks directly if talent get confused or need assistance.
  • Have mentors who understand that neurodiverse talent may need more reassurance and clarity than their neurotypical colleagues. Allow workers to stumble, succeed and develop in a safe environment.
  • Never force neurodiverse people to behave like neurotypical people. Encourage them to be themselves. When they can focus on their tasks, rather than fret over the appropriateness of their behavior or appearance, they perform to exceptional levels.

Even the brightest neurodiversity talent will face significant hurdles in their career paths. Traditional hiring processes, even unintentionally, are biased against autistic candidates. During an interview, a person staring at the ground or refusing to make eye contact may seem rude or disengaged. For autistic professionals, it’s just different behavior. Neurodiversity promises a wealth of new insights and benefits for receptive clients. And contingent workforce program leaders can tap into this underutilized powerhouse of talent.