Building neurodiverse tech teams

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The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency started a pilot in 2020 focused on neurodiversity in its workforce. One hire from the effort says the job is a welcome opportunity to use her unique skills and talents to support the agency’s mission

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency recently wrapped a pilot program focused on neurodiversity in its workforce. Experts say interest in the issue has been growing across government agencies both within and outside of the intelligence community, but more work is needed.

"Neurodiversity" is a term used to describe differences in neurological functioning among people, resulting in different ways of thinking, learning, and behaving. Traditionally, people described as neurodivergent include individuals with autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or dyslexia. The community is not monolithic, but research has shown that individuals with autism in particular tend to excel at pattern recognition, attention to detail and focus — all traits that are valuable in intelligence and cybersecurity. 

Still, neurodivergent adults experience unemployment at rates much higher than the general population. The University of Connecticut's Center for Neurodiversity and Employment Innovation estimates the unemployment rate for individuals with autism, ADHD and other conditions is between 30% and 40%, though data can be hard to come by.

Unsupportive workplace practices and cultures can make it difficult for neurodivergent employees to thrive, said Susan Kalweit, a retired executive at NGA who was involved with the neurodiversity pilot.

"If I want to win, whether it's winning in a competitive industry or winning in national security, and I want the best talent, I want to create the kind of environment for all of my employees to thrive," Kalweit, now a managing director at Deloitte, told FCW. "That means I need to understand the uniqueness of all of my employees and not treat everybody as one homogeneous group. That's why we should care … about thinking through what it takes to employ and retain and develop neurodivergent employees."

Kalweit cited background investigations and ambiguous job descriptions as two among many factors that can take a toll on neurodivergent individuals.

Teresa Thomas, a program lead for MITRE's neurodiverse talent enablement project, is looking for ways to make the workplace more accommodating.

"The things that need to change for folks specifically who are on the spectrum, but also who are ADHD, are things that help everyone, but are things that … folks that we call 'neurotypical' can fight their way through, but nobody should have to fight their way through," Thomas said.

A lack of training and understanding on the part of investigators, polygraphers and the day-to-day managers and coworkers of neurodivergent employees can also cause problems.

The attrition challenge

Overall, this environment can lead to burnout and attrition. According to data from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the intelligence community workforce saw the biggest attrition rate among people with disabilities, including neurodivergent employees, in fiscal year 2021. The attrition rate outpaced hiring for that segment.

Minorities, women and people with disabilities are better represented in lower ranks than senior ones in the intelligence community, "suggesting better success at recruiting than retaining and promoting," Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said at a 2022 industry event.

I was challenged for the first time. People believed in me. I received the support that I needed to be able to do my job well.
Morgan McCardell, NGA

These agencies have to "make the case to women and other diverse talent that we are someplace they'll truly have an opportunity to succeed," she said. When asked specifically about the accessibility of the security clearance process to neurodivergent individuals, Haines said that the issue was being "reviewed" but more data was needed.

Thomas says she doesn't often hear accessibility issues surface in conversations about security clearance reforms.

"They're not even asking the question," she said. "I don't have an agenda for what it is you need to change to make these more accessible, except that you need to ask people what needs to happen to make this more accessible now, so that after you've built this building, you're not having to go in and rip out all the doors and make them all wider."

The neurodiversity boost

NGA launched its pilot with MITRE and nonprofit Melwood in 2020. It resulted in three hires, including Morgan McCardell, a geospatial analyst, whose work involves interpreting spatial data and using geographic information systems and software to analyze trends.

McCardell, who has autism, says that she is especially well-suited for her job, but she hadn't ever planned on working for the government before she learned about the pilot. 

"I get to actually use skills that I've never thought would come in handy for anything, like my ability to hyperfocus, pattern recognition," she said. 

"Besides getting the opportunity to utilize my strengths, it's really the people that make the difference, and the fact that programs like this even exist. It's the reason that I'm here," she said. "I was challenged for the first time. People believed in me. I received the support that I needed to be able to do my job well. I received the support that I needed to even be able to work. I never had that before."

NGA's "biggest takeaway" was "learning more about the needs of existing employees who identify as neurodiverse or neurodivergent," an agency spokesperson told FCW. "While we're not running a pilot right now, the lessons learned haven't gone away, and we continue to actively work with these employees to make sure their needs are met."

MITRE and other partners in the program are working on a playbook, tentatively set to be published this year, on neurodiversity in the federal government with guidance and takeaways for agencies, said Thomas. And Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg, president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, told FCW that MITRE and other stakeholders have recently formed an interest group focused on neurodiversity in the intelligence community.

"Once you … start talking about it, you realize how many people have been touched by someone who is neurodiverse," Heckenberg said.

The intelligence community is not the only corner of government considering the issue. 

"I know just from my calendar that a lot of agencies, just broadly speaking, are exploring what neurodiversity really means — and what it means for them," said Thomas.

Leaders at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, including the agency's director, have previewed a forthcoming initiative focused on neurodiversity. An agency spokesperson confirmed with FCW that CISA is no longer looking to run a neurodiversity pilot program and instead is "exploring other ways to bring neurodiverse individuals into our workforce."

For McCardell, the new job has been a welcome change.

"It was a great feeling to know that I could actually help in some way, that my skills would be valued," she said. "I think that's the thing it comes down to — I have been used to not being valued for the skills that I had. And I think that that happens to a lot of people who are neurodiverse. We were often underestimated, and this was the first time I didn't feel that way, so knowing that my skills would be valuable was a really big deal."

This article is featured in the March 2023 issue of FCW magazine.

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