NGA building on efforts to recruit ‘neurodivergent’ talent

NGA sees 'neurodivergent' employees as a crucial and growing component of the agency's workforce.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is building on a pilot program to recruit people with autism, as the agency plans to hire a new cohort of “neurodivergent” individuals this year while also embedding those efforts more broadly into its persons with disabilities program.

“Neurodiversity” is an umbrella term that refers to differences in brain functioning. Autism, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, and dyslexia are among the most common examples of “neurodivergent” conditions.

Neurodivergent individuals are a growing part of the workforce, with 15-20% of the global population estimated into fall into the category. But they also face high rates of underemployment, according to research cited in a new MITRE white paper, “Enabling Neurodiverse Talent in the Intelligence Community.”

NGA became the first federal agency to launch a neurodiversity pilot in late 2020, with a focus on hiring people with autism. The agency partnered with MITRE and Melwood, a DC-area nonprofit that provides job training and other services to people with disabilities.

The goal of NGA’s pilot was to change how neurodivergent job candidates are recruited, hired and retained for federal positions. Recruits went through a six-month internship and were then offered formal offers of employment.

After the initial pilot in 2021, NGA took a “strategic pause,” according to Jen King, a senior GEOINT analyst at NGA. King also serves as program manager of the neurodiversity program at the agency.

“We wanted to evaluate all the areas that we had experienced during the pilot to determine where we were successful for our new teammates, where we can improve and where we can continue to support individuals in their career,” King said on Inside the IC.

NGA now plans to hire a new cohort of four-to-six neurodivergent individuals later this year, King said. The agency also will fold its neurodiversity hiring efforts into its persons with disabilities program.

The broadening effort at NGA will be called the “Accessing Diversity to Employ Professional Talent,” or “ADEPT,” program.

“We do have a lot of neurodivergent talent and a lot of talent in our pipelines for our people with disabilities program,” King said.

MITRE’s white paper points to research that shows those with autism and other neurodivergent conditions display cognitive and performance traits, such as pattern recognition, that would be particularly useful to intelligence work.

Teresa Thomas, MITRE’s program lead for neurodiverse talent enablement, said some important lessons came out of NGA’s initial pilot program, including how to provide autistic individuals with specific training on what to expect from the security 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.”

Melwood also provided training for some of NGA’s polygraphers on potential 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 said NGA has also created neurodiversity training for senior executives and supervisors across the agency. The goal is to ensure people understand different neurodivergent conditions and associated behaviors. For instance, some individuals may not engage in eye contact with others.

“We train our hiring managers, we are training our security staff that will be running the background investigations,” King said. “We ensure that everyone is aware that there may be behaviors that are a little bit different, and that’s okay.”

Thomas said NGA’s efforts have been successful because agency officials did not treat its pilot as an isolated program.

“They were really thinking about how do we make NGA a better place overall?” Thomas said. “And then how specifically do we make it a better place for our neurodistinct employees?”

King said many of NGA’s existing employees have come forward since the pilot program to share their own neurodivergent diagnoses. King, who is autistic herself, leads a Neurodiversity Working Group at NGA.

And she said many of the changes that would make workplaces more welcoming to neurodivergent individuals are not seismic shifts in workplace culture or processes.

“The changes don’t have to be huge all at once,” she said. “They can be small, such as ensuring that you’ve got an agenda for a meeting 24 hours in advance, or if there’s certain smells that are overpowering, you can use unscented dry erase markers for your whiteboards. It’s little, small things over time that are going to make that great change.”

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