Federal ‘neurodiversity’ initiatives slowly getting off the ground

NGA's neurodiversity pilot has been an outlier. But other federal agencies are starting to take steps to embrace neurodiverse talent.

Jen King has worked for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency since 2000.

She joined NGA out of college and immediately excelled as an analyst, but within the first few years, she found herself struggling with the social aspects of an office job.

King had no reason to suspect there was any particular reason for that until a member of her church handed her a book by Rudy Simone called “Aspergirls,” which describes the experiences of women and girls with autism spectrum disorder.

King said the book sat at the bottom of her desk for six months.

“And then I read through it in one night and cried, because it was me,” she said. “It was my life.”

King said her supervisors at NGA were “really supportive,” and she’s continued to excel at the agency after being diagnosed as autistic midway through her career.

“It’s been a huge learning experience,” she said in a recent interview. 

That was more than a decade ago. Now in addition to her role as a senior analyst, King leads NGA’s neurodiversity program. It began in 2020 as a pilot program to recruit people with autism. After a successful start, NGA plans to hire a new cohort of neurodivergent individuals this year.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term that refers to diversity of cognitive functions. It covers things like autism, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, and dyslexia. People with those conditions face high rates of unemployment, even though many are capable workers.

And neurodivergent individuals often have skills, like pattern recognition, that would make them particularly good candidates for work in places like the intelligence community, according to a white paper released by the MITRE Corporation earlier this month.

While many private sector companies have launched neurodiversity initiatives in recent years, NGA’s program has been one of the only neurodiverse talent initiatives inside the federal government so far.

Teresa Thomas, program lead for neurodiverse talent enablement at MITRE, said agencies have a range of policy and legal questions about the push to hire neurodiverse talent. NGA partnered with MITRE on its pilot program.

“I think it’s just slow,” Thomas said. “I think folks are very cautious. … I think they’re waiting to see how it all shakes out with the agencies that are doing it.”

Depending on their condition, neurodivergent people face many challenges in finding a job. Networking can be difficult for some, and recruiters may balk at gaps in a resume. Some people also have difficulty maintaining eye contact or talking at length during a job interview.

Within the federal government, neurodivergent individuals can face additional barriers. The Defense Department’s policy is to exclude autistic candidates from military service without exception. Serving in the military is a common pathway into a federal job.

And many government positions require a security clearance that comes with a lengthy background investigation, as well as a polygraph interview for higher level clearance.

NGA’s pilot program provided specific training for autistic candidates going through the clearance process.

“We had an idea that it was probably very difficult for someone specifically on the autism spectrum to get through all of that, especially a TS/SCI with the polygraph kind of clearance,” Thomas said. “And, yes, it was even more complicated than I thought.”

The program also provided training to some of NGA’s polygraph specialists on behavioral differences for people with autism.

“It made a huge difference,” Thomas said. “So that was one of the takeaways, that it’s not impossible. It just takes some real thought for folks to get through.”

King’s experience at NGA also shows neurodiversity programs aren’t just about hiring new people. An estimated 15-20% of the world’s population is neurodivergent, but people may not know that they have autism, ADHD or another condition. And others may be hesitant to reveal that they do in their workplace.

“I do see still that there is some resistance to having neurodiversity work programs just across the board,” Anthony Pacilio, vice president of neurodiverse solutions at CAI, said in an interview. “People think that there’s a risk associated with it, all the while knowing that there are neurodivergent individuals who are already working within that space.”

Pacilio said disclosing a neurodivergent condition can be a particularly difficult decision, as an employee may wonder whether it will impact their ability to move up the ranks.

“We’re trying to put people in long-term, meaningful and rewarding careers,” Pacilio said. “Being able to disclose at work, and understand that somebody’s behind you and supporting you, I think that goes a long way in making somebody feel that they are part of the organization, but more importantly, making them feel like they’re a human being. Because somewhere on their journey, it may have been difficult for them.”

At NGA, King now leads a neurodiversity working group that helps raise awareness and drive inclusion efforts at the agency.

“Being able to be given the opportunity to speak about it allowed others to come out, if you will, and say that, ‘Hey, I’m neurodivergent. And it’s okay. And wow, the organization is doing great things to be extremely inclusive, I don’t feel like I have to hide,'” she said.

And despite the slow start government-wide, Thomas is optimistic at the progress on neurodiversity being made across federal agencies.

“I think that we’re way past the, ‘What is neurodiversity?’ stage,” Thomas said. “We’re into the, ‘What does this look like where we are right now’ phase? And in a public organization, that would be months, but this is the federal government. So this is years, but it’s cautious. And I think people are starting to be really intentional.”

In October, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency launched its own neurodiverse workforce initiative. Like NGA, CISA is partnering with MITRE and the Melwood Horticultural Training Center on its program. Llauryn Iglehart, chief of CISA’s Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility, said it will be a 15-month effort.

“Ultimately, several interns will be placed on select cybersecurity teams with ongoing support and training for all participants, including the interns, team supervisors and managers, and any team leads,” Iglehart said in a statement to Federal News Network. “Based on this effort, we plan to develop a playbook on how to effectively scale neurodiverse employment and provide it as a resource for other organizations and agencies.”

Congress is also pushing the Pentagon to take a closer look at the issue. The conference report on the 2024 national defense authorization act requires DoD to brief lawmakers on neurodiversity within the armed forces.

“Such briefing shall address potential opportunities for the department to leverage the fundamental strengths that are common among members of the neurodivergent population, including problem-solving, pattern recognition, visualization, and other skills that benefit national security fields,” the conference report states.

“Such briefing shall also address current barriers to the hiring and retention of neurodivergent individuals within the Department of Defense, both in military and civilian service, including an assessment of whether and under what conditions neurodivergence should be treated as a disability, and ways in which the department can reduce such unnecessary barriers,” the report adds.

King said small changes within a workplace, like offering an agenda for a meeting 24 hours in advance, can make a big difference for some people. And King sees a lot of those small changes starting to add up at places like NGA.

“We are seeing quite a bit of our existing neurodivergent population come out and say that, ‘Hey, I’m neurodivergent, I need a little bit of support here,’ or, ‘Hey, here’s where I think that we could help,'” King said. “I think that as time moves on, and we hire more neurodivergent individuals, there’s going be a shift and a change in the federal workforce. … I think we’re going to see that pouring out more and more. There may be somebody that’s in the room that’s been afraid to speak up that will now speak up because now they feel included.”

Nearly Useless Factoid

By: Daisy Thornton

Almost 70% of people can correctly identify a chicken’s emotions from the sound of its clucking, regardless of whether or not they have any prior experience with chickens.

Source: Atlas Obscura


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