Supporting Neurodiversity in STEMNews
It has been well established that combining diverse perspectives increases innovation and the potential for discovery, and will be necessary to reach cures. Unfortunately, many workplaces aren’t calibrated to be supportive of everyone – and this is especially true of those who are neurodivergent. We need more inclusive systems to make sure we are providing opportunities and support to all of those who are able to make a difference.
In partnership with the Simons Foundation, NYSCF has launched a Neurodiversity in the Workplace Program to do just this, beginning with enhancing our postgraduate internship program.
“The Autism in the Workplace program has yielded so many positive outcomes here, both for the foundation and the individuals,” remarked Simons Foundation Director of Special Projects Maria Adler. “We are now committed to helping other organizations gain the benefits of autism focused hiring.”
We sat down with Maria along with NYSCF Vice President of HR & Operations Cindy Anzel, NYSCF Director of External Programs Richard Ha, and Integrate COO Ian Bazzoli to learn more.
Why is it important to support neurodiverse people in the workplace?
“70 to 90% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed,” noted Cindy. “They’re a highly qualified talent pool, and with our leadership’s support, we’re really happy to learn how to build a program that supports neurodivergent folks in our workplace effectively.”
“This is a portion of the workforce that isn’t being tapped into for jobs like it should be, and that’s a loss for everyone,” added Richard. “And beyond simply hiring neurodivergent people, we need strategies to support them throughout their careers.”
How is NYSCF implementing neurodiversity initiatives in our internship program?
“We attended an introductory “Autism in the Workplace” meeting at the Simons Foundation, who have been a longtime partner of ours, and we were immediately drawn to the idea,” said Richard. “It was really eye-opening and completely aligned with our diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) values. So we started to engage in talks for a pilot program, and a postgraduate version of our internship program was the perfect environment for us to begin, because that’s the way the Simons Foundation had done it, and our interns are integral to our accomplishments.”
To ensure that our neurodivergent interns would be well supported, all NYSCF staff engaged in a training hosted by Integrate Advisors, professionals who help organizations identify, recruit and retain professionals on the autism spectrum.
“At Integrate, our view is that in order to impact the outcomes of neurodivergent college graduates, we need to propel change on the employer side of the equation,” said Ian. “That’s why we place such an emphasis on an organizational assessment and company-wide training when launching a program.”
There are now 2 postgraduate interns working at NYSCF in our pilot program.
“Our current mentors volunteered to host interns, carving out areas in real need of support by the unique skills of the interns that were hired,” continued Richard.
For twelve weeks, as they worked on their specialized projects, interns also participated in weekly team meetings, resume reviews, and daily check-ins.
“We really wanted to provide a representation of the typical workday, not just at NYSCF, but any office or lab environment,” Richard continued. “We also encouraged a hybrid work model to better align with today’s job market.”
“A recent survey showed that 42% of autistic adults have not worked for pay since leaving high school,” noted Cindy. “So it was also really important for us to not only provide the opportunity for them to have professional experience, but to have a paid professional experience. We also can use the program as a pipeline for recruiting – helping us to expand our workforce for full-time roles.”
What advice would you give to other organizations who want to support their neurodivergent coworkers?
“I would say make sure you dedicate resources to implementing and managing the program,” said Cindy. “Effective training for your staff is very important. It was really critical for us to have partner organizations like the Simons Foundation and Integrate Advisors, who are experts in this and could assist with the rollout and provide ongoing support.”
“Also, when it comes to the mentors and the projects we plan for our interns, we have touch points throughout the program to make sure everybody is getting what they need and feels supported,” added Richard.
“Two of the most important elements in creating a neuroinclusive environment are for organizations to focus on clear communication as well as having a thoughtful approach to managing team-members and projects,” added Ian. “When things are moving fast, communication can break down and organizations can lose sight of previewing changes to employees. When attention is given to these areas the outcomes are better for all staff, not just those that are neurodivergent.”
“If you’re interested in launching your own Neurodiversity in the Workplace program, there are some valuable lessons we’ve learned from our ongoing pilot,” shared Cindy.
“Begin by securing full support at the highest level of your organization, and ensure that you allocate the necessary resources for implementing such a program,” she advised. “Once you have leadership support and a dedicated team in place, focus on reviewing your hiring practices. Many conventional hiring processes unintentionally exclude or disadvantage neurodivergent candidates.”
This could involve introducing various interview modalities and providing training for anyone involved in recruitment and interviews to promote inclusive hiring practices. Also, it is important to make sure job descriptions are both inclusive and precise.
“After selecting your candidates, shift your attention to preparing for their onboarding,” Cindy continued. “This phase is crucial for evaluating traditional workplace practices and identifying areas where accommodations may be necessary to consider workplace sensitivities, diverse communication styles, alternative learning methods, as well as needs related to attention and collaboration. Creating a workplace environment that offers flexibility, break schedules, and robust support systems, along with strong mentorship is key to a successful program.”
“For our postgraduate program, mentors received additional training in addition to the comprehensive all staff training in preparation for the program rollout,” she said. “Finally, throughout this journey, we relied on our partners for valuable guidance every step of the way.”
What has been the most rewarding part of this work so far?
“The most rewarding part has been increasing neurodiversity awareness across NYSCF and providing opportunities for people who earned their place here,” remarked Cindy. “We truly believe that it takes 100% of the field’s brainpower to successfully do the work we are doing. We are proud that we can provide the opportunities through this pilot program and I wish more organizations had the resources to do it.”
“Autistic individuals are an untapped workforce with strong capabilities and skills to offer potential employers,” added Maria. “We’ve been so fortunate to work with NYSCF and now we are seeking partnerships with other organizations that can utilize our support to implement hiring or internship programs for autistic candidates.”
“I think the ability to learn has been really rewarding,” said Richard. “Neurodiversity means everyone: so figuring out how we can make things easier for everybody at NYSCF and giving people different options. There are so many little things we might not even think about if we don’t make a concerted effort to take everyone’s experiences into account. It has been very eye-opening.”
Learn more about this work in an article in Crain’s New York.