When Will Neurodiversity Programming Take the Next Step?

Neurodiversity programs are everywhere, but what have they really accomplished? It’s time for neurodiversity programs to stop looking for a few “interns” and focus on the millions of neurodivergent students and workers hiding in plain sight all over America. Help those people, and you help everyone.

Ten years ago, I accepted an appointment as neurodiversity scholar at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. We became the first major American university to teach neurodiversity as a concept. When SAP brought Autism at Work (AaW) to America I became one of their advisors, and I helped push AaW to evolve into Neurodiversity at Work (NaW). If you think autistic brains will enrich a college or a workspace, doesn’t it make sense that more different brains will be even better? Science shows us that a wide range of neurodevelopmental differences (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more) share biological foundations even as they confer different mixes of disability and exceptionality.

Today’s neurodiversity programs have given opportunity to some people, but many have failed to reach their potential for helping neurodivergent communities where the programs are based. With all that’s said about neurodiversity’s potential, that is a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. Major corporations often tout the success of their Neurodiversity at Work efforts, and they cite growing numbers of NaW interns—25; then 50; now 75. That sounds very promising until you put it in perspective. Companies that employ 25,000 or more people hired 75 interns. How big a deal is that? A company that size can hire more people in a day just to make up for attrition.

Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveys the prevalence of developmental differences by looking at children in public schools. That’s a population where all the kids can be screened, unlike the adult population where no regular screening takes place. If we summarize the prevalence of all neurodevelopmental differences, we come up with a number around 15%, or 1 in 7 kids. Other research has shown that adult prevalence mirrors what’s found in children, though it has been mostly unrecognized in older adults. Extrapolating from the CDC’s numbers, there are tens of millions of neurodivergent adults in America.

Many of those adults have never even heard of neurodiversity. Most probably don’t identify as disabled. All of them, at some point, have probably realized they are different from most other people. Neurodiversity awareness offers the chance to turn a vague discomfort into empowerment.

Neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD and dyslexia are lifelong differences. They do not go away in adulthood, though some who call conditions like ADHD “childhood disabilities” imagine them that way. In fact, most neurodivergent people do learn to function well enough to blend in with the general population and go to work. Working, though, does not mean disability has vanished. Taking the example of autism, almost 2% of kids in school receive autism supports, many of which are life-changing. But when school ends, the support comes to an abrupt end, and many young adults feel lost. Later in life, surveys of large heath care systems like Kaiser in California found just 0.1% of older adults still sought autism treatment.

The low percentage of adults seeking autism treatment does not show that those people were “cured.” Rather, it shows they no longer want or need the adult autism services that are available. One big reason for that is that most health care systems have no meaningful therapies available to support autistic adults. Furthermore, other studies have shown older autistics do seek treatments for anxiety, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues we now know are more common among neurodivergent people.

Empowering neurodivergent staff

The elevated rate of suicide for neurodivergent adults is a painful reminder of the numbers who must suffer in silence. Churchill wrote that most people live lives of quiet desperation and that statement is particularly true in the neurodiversity community. Some neurodivergent adults are unemployed, but the sheer size of their population tells us most are somewhere at work. Making a rough calculation, that company with 25,000 employees already has more than 3,000 neurodivergent workers. Seen in that light, some would consider those 75 NaW interns a distraction from the real issue.

Yet we should not cross off today’s NaW programs as worthless. In most programs, employers have partnered with state disability services departments to provide counseling and support to help certain neurodivergent people with higher support needs get and keep jobs; a feat they might not accomplish on their own. That is a laudable thing, bringing more people fulfilling employment.

However, the real benefits will come when corporations construct programs to empower the thousands of neurodivergent staff they already have. Therapies to help people build and sustain relationships, or organize themselves to be more productive, may have been developed to help folks with specific disabilities but they prove beneficial to far more people. Therefore, a NaW program that serves everyone will benefit the entire company, in much more substantive ways than current internships.

Why don’t employers do this? I suspect one reason is that senior managers enjoy the PR benefits their existing programs deliver, and they appreciate their low costs since state disability support covers much of the counseling. Company-wide counseling or training is expensive. Why should they spend millions of dollars to develop NaW when what they have is almost free, and generating good press?

Since company-wide neurodiversity programs have yet to be implemented and measured, it’s hard to make the financial case for them. The financial returns are just too hard to measure. Despite that, many companies have implemented alcohol and drug rehabilitation programs, and some offer counseling. Those are generally seen as valuable. What would it take to really launch NaW? Someone will have to take the first step, and show the way.

How colleges can lead the way

Colleges can step up and show the way. Most already provide more mental health support to students than regular workplaces offer their workers. It may be a shorter step for a college to go from supporting neurodivergent students through their counseling centers, to offering college-wide support programs that lack the stigma attached to counseling centers. Colleges have less need for short-term profit, and colleges with business schools can show their corporate sponsors how to lead the way for all. There is the potential for many departments of a university to get involved in NaW.

A college with a robust tradition of apprenticeship may be best positioned to lead this, because so many neurodivergent people perform better in “learning by doing” environments. Such apprenticeships may help wean corporate clients off the state disability service support model, which is a major turn-off for proud and independent college students when it comes to endorsing neurodiversity.

Colleges are in a good position to reposition neurodiversity programs from disability support to empowering people with different brains through self-discovery. Students work hard to get into better colleges. When they get there, most are too proud to join a program for people with disabilities. Readers can make of that what they will, but I have seen pride keep people out of NaW programs in more places than I can count. Beyond pride, people fear being stigmatized and hurt by that later in life.

I’m not suggesting organizations abandon working with state agencies to support people who might otherwise be unemployable. That’s a good thing to do, and should be continued, but it’s not the broad Neurodiversity at Work. It’s a small part of the whole, addressing a segment of the population with higher support needs than the majority, most of whom do not identify as disabled.

Some colleges put ND in a president’s office of diversity, to show it is a central value of the school, and not just one department’s program. Such an office would be well-positioned to roll out school-wide programs without stigma. Programs to help people work in teams, organize themselves, and understand others would benefit neurodivergent people, while also offering benefits to any other folks who want to join. That’s how it should be.

A few employers are following this model. The Lawrence Livermore National lab is approaching NaW as a whole-workforce thing, and I look forward to seeing how their program works out over the next decade. Most large organizations now have Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, which are ideal platforms from which to launch organization-wide neurodiversity. They are not doing broad NaW yet but they are gathering some of the pieces of a program.

Free lunches sound good when companies talk about their workspace, but programs that help people form and sustain relationships will mean a lot more. That’s the kind of neurodiversity support that neurodivergent workers often need, and like many special ed programs in schools, it will make life better for everyone.

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