TAKING RESPONSIBILITY Neurodiversity at Work: SAS Takes the Lead The software company SAS has a program called Autism at Work, which places individuals with autism into positions at its facilities in 13 countries. This is not a feel-good project to help the needy; rather, it is a dedicated effort to place talent in hard-to-fill positions in the tech industry. SAS has found that a focus on skills leads the company to identify particular people on the autism spectrum who can do the challenging work required. Some persons with autism excel in memory and identification of patterns in data. One SAS employee with autism contributed to two patents in his first year on the job. Even the challenges associated with autism in the workplace can generate benefits. Employees with autism often require that communication be extremely clear. Managers at SAS who have these employees on staff therefore develop their communication skills to meet the needs of their employees. One manager noted that many IT projects fail due to ambiguous communication, so the extra effort probably benefits the company in terms of more completed projects. As more companies are learning to appreciate the contributions of qualified employees with autism, a new term is being used to describe them: neurodiverse. Neurodiversity typically refers to individuals on the autism spectrum. Referring to their brain function as “diverse” points up the fact that the differences are not necessarily a defect, especially in a setting where they can reach their full potential. Mike Civello, founder and vice president of the Neurodiversity Inclusion Center, acknowledges that hiring a neurodiverse staff is not necessarily simple. Co-workers are not always comfortable with this kind of diversity and may have difficulty knowing how to engage with an employee on the spectrum. Civello advises that HR staffers and managers learn about the potential of neurodiverse employees first, so they can shape the organization’s culture and management. Then the broader workforce can undergo training. In addition, the organization may need to make accommodations for certain employees, such as providing noise-cancelling headphones so that the work environment is not overstimulating. Paul Shattuck of the A. J. Drexel Autism Institute has a similar perspective. He notes that co-workers can learn that repetitive behaviors, such as rocking, that are associated with autism are just a way of calming oneself and that coping with anxiety is a common human situation. Shattuck, like the managers at SAS, has found that hiring neurodiverse employees is a way to build a diverse and inclusive workforce and help managers develop excellent supervisory skills. It may involve recognizing that a lack of eye contact is not a problem when it means someone is working hard to pay attention. It may involve hiring someone who doesn’t care to socialize but can analyze data with care or treat customers with kindness. It certainly involves building a work culture where people can accept one another’s diversity. Questions For a company such as SAS that is recruiting neurodiverse workers in the United States, how would the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to the process? What challenges do you see to building a neurodiverse workforce? What advantages?


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