Neurodiversity in the Workplace — and at Events

Lawrence Fung, M.D., Ph.D., spoke with Convene about how the Stanford Neurodiversity Project is helping to make workplace experiences more accessible for neurodiverse individuals, and how meetings can do the same.

Author: Casey Gale       

Lawrence Fung

“Eighty percent of the people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed … because they don’t know how to maneuver in a social setting and [neurotypical] people don’t understand how to work with them,” said Stanford University professor Lawrence Fung.

The idea to create the Stanford Neurodiversity Project was sparked at a conference. While attending an event organized by SAP, Lawrence Fung, a scientist, researcher, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, learned about the success of the software company’s Autism at Work program. “It was very eye-opening,” said Fung, M.D., Ph.D., who has a child on the autism spectrum. “It was inspiring to see that people on the autism spectrum are really getting their life on track because of the people at SAP understanding that they think differently and provide a different process for them so that they become a strong contributor of their company.”

After the event, Fung and a few fellow faculty members decided to create a special interest group focusing on neurodiversity, which refers to neurological variations such as autism, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyspraxia (a neurologically based physical disorder), and dyslexia.

“I thought this was going to be just the five of us talking for a couple of months,” Fung said. “The first meeting, we had 23 other people joining us already.” In the four years since its inception, the special interest group has grown to a network of 800 people from around the world who virtually connect on a monthly basis to discuss different topics surrounding neurodiversity.

The popularity of the special interest group led Fung to officially create the Stanford Neurodiversity Project, of which he serves as director, in 2018. The initiative, run by Stanford’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, has a number of offshoots, including support for Stanford students with autism, awareness and education, Neurodiversity Wellness, and Neurodiversity at Work — a multi-pronged program to help both neurodiverse individuals looking for work, as well as companies trying to create a more accessible workplace. The objectives of the program are to cultivate the concept of the strengths-based model for neurodiversity in organizations; empower managers and teams with skills to work with neurodiverse individuals; increase job readiness for neurodiverse individuals; and support both employers and neurodiverse employees throughout the entire employment cycle. The program is open to any neurodiverse job candidate.

Spreading Education and Awareness

What started as an idea from a conference has now generated a new conference of its own. On Nov. 7-9, Stanford Neurodiversity Project will hold its second virtual Stanford Neurodiversity Summit. The conference, which hosts neurodiverse individuals, employers, parents of neurodiverse individuals, mental-health-care providers, educators, and more, will focus on issues of employment, mental-health support, K-12 education, college education, and other topics. In its first year, the event hosted 3,000 participants, with at least the same number expected to attend this year.

“Eighty percent of the people on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed,” Fung said. “Not because they’re not smart. It’s because they don’t know how to maneuver in a social setting and [neurotypical] people don’t understand how to work with them. So basically, we work with both groups to maximize the chance that there will be fruitful interactions.”

The program has an active collaboration with Google, among other companies, to build its own neurodiversity at work program. Neurodiversity at Work also has helped high-profile organizations including Amazon, Dell, Facebook, and the United Nations with neurodiversity awareness training, best practices training for recruitment, and finding neurodiverse hires, Fung said, and the project has successfully placed job seekers everywhere from construction companies to architecture firms.

“What we believe is that people on the autism spectrum have a wide range of talents,” Fung said. “Neurodiverse individuals have very different ways of conceptualizing things and because of that, they bring in new ideas. And not only that, but when they are really interested in those ideas, they can go in depth of what can be done.”

Adapting the Hiring Process

One way neurodiverse employees and their employers have needed guidance from Neurodiversity at Work is how to navigate the interview process.

“There are a lot of companies that would have a … standard way of evaluating individuals. And it is very anxiety-provoking for anyone to be talking to a stranger and the person potentially who can get them a job. So there is a lot of anticipated anxiety already,” Fung said. “Sometimes, neurodiverse individuals can be [particularly] affected by that anxiety. So if employers are able to remove the anxiety and let them show how their qualifications are fitting to the job description, then the employer gets what they want. At the end of the day, the employer wants someone that will be able to do the work well.”

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For example, Fung recommends providing interview questions in advance, or allowing potential employees to answer questions via email instead of in person. That way, Fung said, “the neurodiverse job seeker will have the time to prepare the answers without getting them into a situation where they cannot describe who they really are.”

Fung said there are several assumptions people subconsciously make that can be harmful to neurodiverse job seekers and employees. “A lot of people would form their first impressions on someone based on whether or not they have good eye contact and whether or not they greet you — and do they have enthusiasm? A lot of times, neurodiverse individuals don’t really know how to impress people socially. What we suggest to the employers we’re training is that all these kinds of social interactions should be thrown aside, and not be used as part of the assessment. By doing that, we make the interview process a little bit more equitable with trying to put a neurodiverse individual in the same playing field as others.”

Neurodiversity and Events

Neurodiverse individuals often experience large events differently than neurotypical individuals, as they have unique learning and communication styles. “They can be very easily overwhelmed when there are a lot of people and a lot of sensory stimuli,” said Stanford Neurodiversity Project’s Lawrence Fung. Because of this, neurodiverse professionals can lend a new perspective to event planning teams by recommending “accessibility features” for a conference that neurotypical professionals wouldn’t consider, Fung said.

“Whatever the subject matter of the conference is, it is helpful to recognize there are differences in how people [process information],” Fung said. “Some people might be more of a visual learner and some people may be more auditory. It helps when you have closed captioning for some people who may not be able to absorb everything just by listening. Having multiple modes of communication is helpful. People who are neurodiverse know what their needs are.” Fung also added that, in this particularly digitally-focused time due to COVID-19, neurodiverse employees could also have recommendations on how to engage neurodiverse audience members and make the online experience accessible.

This is in addition to other skills that neurodiverse individuals often — but not always — excel at, that align with jobs in the events industry. “People are on the spectrum — there’s a very big spectrum. Not everyone is the same,” Fung said. But for example, he said, “it is very common that people on the spectrum are very detail oriented, and when you’re talking about planning a conference, it really is all about the details.” This is backed up by data from JPMorgan Chase, which has one of the four largest U.S. autism hiring programs — SAP, EY, and Microsoft are the other three companies. The investment banking company reports that professionals in its Autism at Work initiative make fewer errors — and are 90 percent to 140 percent more productive than neurotypical employees.

Casey Gale is associate editor at Convene.

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