Addressing Cybersecurity Skills Gaps and Increasing Employment for Neurodistinct Employees
Written by Jim Cook, CEO Red Maple Research LLC, and Director, Melwood Board of Director
As digital technology further embeds in every part of our lives, the risks from cyber threats and their consequences are greater than ever. Cyber “bad actors” evolve even faster than technological development and innovation, putting pressure on our commercial and governmental institutions to protect themselves and the public. The rapid change in cyber tradecraft requires new ways of thinking about and approaching problems and risks. All of these factors drive the need for more skilled cybersecurity professionals across all functions of an organization. The need is staggering – according to a survey conducted by The International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC2), the global worker gap was 3.4 million in 2022 and will continue to grow well into 2025 and likely beyond. This same survey also pointed out that 91% of respondents believe cybersecurity needs more diversity. Different backgrounds and talents lead to more innovation while preventing bias and “blind spots,” which, left unchecked, often lead to increased risk.
But what does this have to do with neurodiversity and neurodistinct individuals?
Focus on the point about diversity in the field. While seeking more talent from diverse backgrounds, we must also include those with different skills and talents. Many leading companies in the private sector have already demonstrated the value of tapping into the neurodiversity community to hire people on the autism spectrum, especially for cybersecurity jobs. The decade-long effort called “Neurodiversity @ Work” has resulted in guidance for organizations seeking to add neurodistinct people to their workforce, including best practices and training for managers and employees. Recently, a federal government effort based on the private sector model called the “Neurodiverse Federal Workforce” initiative started taking similar steps to increase government opportunities for neurodistinct talent. While nascent, this growing MITRE Corporation and Melwood initiative has already demonstrated success in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and now, the initiative is tailoring the program and tools to adapt and scale the initiative with various government agencies’ unique workforce policies and practices. The neurodistinct candidates are identified through several avenues, including a technical training program created by Melwood to provide technical and social training to prepare neurodistinct candidates to succeed in their work and their workplace.
Before moving any further, it is necessary to understand what “neurodistinct” and “neurodiverse” mean and their importance. “Neurodiversity” refers to the natural differences in how people’s brains develop, and “neurodistinct” refers to individuals whose neurotypes vary from the normal range of differences in ways that result in difficulties for them. These variations, sometimes referred to as “conditions”, come with different strengths, skills, and challenges that may not be as acute for people whose brains developed without those differences, so-called “neurotypicals.” Many conditions fall under the general category of neurodistinct, the most obvious and well-known being autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but others include Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyspraxia, and even anxiety disorder. While these conditions all create challenges and struggles for people who experience them, their unique neurodistinction sometimes includes a heightened ability to, for example, detect patterns in data, examine complex problems differently, analyze information, do math, retain complex details, and visualize images in 3D. Meanwhile, reasonable, often simple accommodations can manage many of the challenges of each neurodistinction.
Why is this important, especially in relation to a discussion about closing skills gaps in the workforce? It is all in the numbers. Research shows that 15%-20% of the population is neurodistinct. Meanwhile, CDC data reports that approximately 5.4 million adults in the US are on the autism spectrum, and recent data shows that 1 in 36 children aged 8 have been identified on the autism spectrum  . This ratio may be even lower when you consider the potential for early misdiagnosis, poor access to health care in some communities and demographics, and stigma associated with autism in some communities. From the employment side, neurodistinct individuals are unemployed at a rate at least 4 times greater than their neurotypical peers, and people in the autism spectrum specifically are approximately 75% – 80% unemployed or underemployed.
As may be obvious at this point, we have an opportunity. While the ADA ensures that the 25% of our population living with disabilities will have access to employment, transportation, medical care, and public buildings, the real opportunity goes beyond that commitment. We have skill gaps in professions that require the specific strengths that neurodistinct individuals often possess – analytical, innovative, creative, and the ability to approach complex problems in different ways. Rather than focus on their struggles and assess them as “not a good fit”, employers need to focus on the skill gaps neurodistinct individuals can fill and work to accommodate their differences in order to benefit from their diverse strengths. This tactical shift is where programs like the Neurodiversity @ Work movement and the recent Neurodiverse Federal Workforce pilots come in. They provide awareness training and information to organizations, managers, and their employees to understand and make necessary process changes and accommodations necessary to achieve their potential. These changes include skills-based interviewing versus behavioral interviews and giving clear direction and information versus ambiguous, open-ended, and unspoken expectations. As you may imagine, organizations who have made these changes find that they benefit all workplace employees, not just the neurodistinct.
How can you learn more? Many resources are available at low or no cost, and a wealth of information is available on the internet about Neurodiversity in the Workplace. Below the citations, you will find resources to help you better plan your path to address cybersecurity workforce needs by expanding employment opportunities for neurodistinct individuals.
 Neurodiversity at Work Playbook: https://disabilityin.org/resource/neurodiversity-at-work-playbook-employee-engagement-growth-series/
 CBS This Morning piece on the National Geospatial Agency (NGA) pilot:
The Neurodiversity Hub – a large and ever-growing source of information and tools, mostly out of Australia:
60 Minutes piece on autism in the workplace:
CBS This Morning piece on NGA’s neurodiversity pilot:
Article “Intense World Theory of Autism”
Article – “How to Talk About Autism Respectfully”
Be Your Best Academy: an educational program developed by 100% neurodivergent professionals –
Information about neurodiversity programs within private organizations:
MITRE’s internal program:
Ultra Testing, now known as Ultranauts.
Resources provided by the US Government:
Job Accommodation Network (JAN) – information about accommodations provided by the Department of Labor
Accommodating Employees with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Employer Assistance and Resource Network (EARN)
Neurodiversity in the Workplace Toolkit
About the Author:
Jim Cook serves as a Director on Melwood’s Board of Directors, and he provides policy research and consulting to clients as CEO of Red Maple Research, LLC. Formerly a VP with the MITRE Corporation, Jim is a champion for neurodiversity in the workforce and was the executive sponsor for the Neurodiverse Federal Workforce Initiative developed by MITRE and Melwood.
The National Academy of Public Administration appreciates Jim Cook’s ongoing efforts to support the neurodiverse workforce—the Academy is happy to work with Jim, MITRE, Melwood, and others to promote accessibility across public administration and public service.