By Jim Cook, MITRE Vice President for Strategic Engagement and Partnerships
Our nation currently faces a cybersecurity and technology workforce gap that impacts the public and private sectors alike. The talent pool available to our federal, state, and local governments and critical infrastructure organizations is insufficient to address the myriad security challenges we face; most experts project the gap to only grow wider.
Increasingly, organizations must look to address this workforce gap by creating new pipelines of talent. A key opportunity exists to draw on underutilized populations of talented adults with skillsets well-suited to accomplishing the work. One such population is neurodivergent individuals.
Neurodiversity in the Workplace
Neurodiversity includes a range of neurological development and behavioral traits, including autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other neurotypes.
The number of neurodiverse people in the United States is difficult to quantify. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the overall prevalence of adults aged 18-44 with a current ADHD diagnosis is 4.4%. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that approximately 1 in 44 children in the United States is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Over the next decade, an estimated 707,000 to 1,116,000 autistic teens will enter adulthood and age out of school-based autism services.
Many neurodivergent individuals exhibit heightened capabilities in certain areas, often making them well-suited for high-tech careers. These capabilities include:
- Accelerated problem-solving
- Detail orientation
- Following instructions and rules with accuracy
- Innovative approaches to challenges
- Specialized knowledge and skills in areas of interest
Despite these valuable attributes, this segment of the population is highly underemployed, with some estimates putting the number of unemployed autistic young adults as high as 80%. Employers, including federal, state, and local governments, can tap into this talent pool—creating new opportunities to address workforce gaps, increasing innovation through diversity of thought, and supporting economic growth by bringing previously unemployed people into the workforce.
Filling the Talent Gap
For more than ten years, private sector organizations have successfully leveraged a system called Autism @ Work (now Neurodiversity @ Work) to help fill their talent gaps by addressing some of the hurdles neurodivergent people can face when seeking employment. They have built programs that modify interview and evaluation systems and establish in-house support structures. Federal, state, and local governments can use this system to address workforce shortages.
MITRE believes that the lessons and benefits gained through the private sector’s experiences could positively impact the public sector. As a public interest company and trusted third party, MITRE can partner with the public sector to help them adapt their requirements based on Neurodiversity @ Work protocols.
MITRE has partnered with several federal agencies to help them connect with—and learn from—organizations successfully using the Neurodiversity @ Work system, while at the same time navigating federal regulations. This work is enabling us to customize a strategy and to begin developing a “playbook” to help translate the private sector approaches to work within agency culture. The same process is also replicable at the local and state levels of government
MITRE’s Neurodiverse Federal Workforce Program
Through our Neurodiverse Federal Workforce (NFW) pilot program, MITRE has partnered with advisors from successful Neurodiversity at Work programs, including Microsoft, SAP, and DXC, as well as universities with autism support programs and agencies like the federal Office of Disability Employment Policy and the Office of Personnel Management, who have a vested interest in building a neurodiverse workforce across the nation.
Our team brought together the systems and lessons learned from these organizations and worked with a D.C. area social service provider and other partner organizations to craft strategies that help agencies effectively engage, hire, support, and retain neurodiverse talent. These strategies will eventually lead to the publication of a federal version of the Autism @ Work Playbook, the current version of which is the gold standard for private organizations seeking to launch neurodiversity initiatives.
Over the last three years, MITRE’s NFW team has spread the word by speaking at countless agencies, conferences, and events to educate about hiring and supporting neurodivergent talent. We’ve convened a “steering committee” of private sector and federal representatives and autism self-advocates to follow the pilot and contribute to the federal playbook, ultimately guiding the transition and adoption of the NFW program government-wide.
Most importantly, NFW piloted an autism-focused hiring and support initiative with National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA). The initiative led to the full-time hiring of three participants. It sparked systemic change and far-reaching plans within NGA, making it a model of neuro-inclusive employment practices within the intelligence community.
A Blueprint for States
The NFW’s Federal Playbook will outline key elements of the program that apply broadly to help federal agencies recruit and retain neurodiverse candidates. But states can also leverage these strategies to address their own workforce needs.
State governments can lean forward by:
- Recognizing that this is an important and growing community to serve
- Instituting agency initiatives to hire and support neurodivergent talent
- Helping other organizations across the state build their neurodiverse workforces
- Focusing on education
- Work with school systems to provide neurodivergent students with good early training for STEM careers
- Help teachers and students understand how to effectively engage with neurodivergent students, rather than separating or marginalizing them
- Offer high school training certificates or apprenticeships in areas such as cyber
- Ensure universities can support neurodivergent students
Changing Perceptions and Broadening Impact
MITRE’s NFW pilot has been working to change the conversation about what it means to hire for neurodiversity. The systems, processes, and behaviors necessary for management to successfully recruit, hire, and engage neurodivergent individuals are fairly straightforward, and the benefits are far-reaching. Organizations will experience broader diversity, improved employee engagement, better workforce retention, and more thoughtful management and communication practices.
In addition to our NGA initiative, MITRE continues to partner with other agencies interested in participating in this pilot program.
Our goal is to initiate and support meaningful change—both for employers seeking to access new talent and for neurodivergent job seekers who have for so long been overlooked and underserved.