By Pamela Arnold

“Diversity is not about how we differ. Diversity is about embracing one another’s uniqueness.”
– Ola Joseph

Recently, a colleague, Lisa Horuczi Markus of Catalyst 9, and I were engaged in a discussion on how the term “diversity” is defined by different generations. Specifically, how the definition may be characterized by Generation Z (aka Net Generation)—those born after the year 2000. Lisa shared an experience that illuminated the fact that this generation expands the definition beyond color and ethnicity only. While facilitating a diversity session at San Juan Elementary School in San Juan Capistrano, CA, with a student body that was half Hispanic/Spanish as a first language, and half white/English as a first language, this reality surfaced. In the follow-up sessions, the most commonly asked question was “Am I African American?” For these students, diversity was more about how you think rather than how you look.

Neurodiversity and the Workforce

Embracing each person’s uniqueness is a key strategic requirement for building and retaining a talented workforce. An area of diverse talent that may be currently overlooked is neurological diversity or neurodiversity. This is a term used to describe people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and autism—general terms used to describe a group of complex disorders of brain development. As Thomas Armstrong writes in The Power of Neurodiversity: Unleashing the Advantages of Your Differently Wired Brain, this term originated in the late 1990s by autism advocates Harvey Blume and Judy Singer. According to the research and data from The Action for Autism organization, the current and future workforce already includes the neurodiversity population with indications it is increasing:

  • 1 in every 91 children in the U.S. is autistic
  • 1 in every 70 boys is autistic
  • Students with autism increased 528% from 1992-2002
  • Autistic students growing at rate of 22.69%
  • +3% of U.S. population impacted by autism
  • 80–90% unemployment rate among Autistic adults

Pursuing the Promise of Diversity Summit

During The American Institute for Managing Diversity’s summit “Pursing the Promise of Diversity,” HP Chief Technology Officer Phil McKinney and his daughter, Autism expert and Speech Pathologist Tara Roehl, made a strong business case for why autism may be work-place strength. “High-functioning ASD adults are the perfect fit for highly-detailed, extremely-technical work, provided the customer-facing part of their jobs is modified,” said Roehl.

Increasing awareness of neurodiversity is more than a diversity checklist to-do; it may be an essential way the U.S. talent gap in STEM could be addressed. It’s well known that high-tech employers struggle to fill roles like computer programmer and other STEM high-detail, high-focus jobs. What is untapped is the growing talent pool of high-functioning autistic adults that could be a good fit for these highly-skilled and highly-tedious jobs—provided social aspects of the job are addressed properly. A neurodiversity intervention is necessary to bridge the gap between the autistic talent pool and the needs of the corporation.

Power of Diversity

Bringing together unique perspectives has a significant impact on innovation, which leads to successful business results. In order to successfully build highly effective and talented teams and retain talent, the culture has to be built. Diversity management helps leaders make quality decisions in situations or environments where there are similarities and differences and helps to create innovative teams. According to Mike Stanton of Action for Autism, the essence of neurodiversity is to “accept the difference—then find ways to work together.” We have the opportunity to learn and apply this to everyone. This formula for success will ensure that organizations are tapping into the diverse talent that may have been overlooked, thereby providing opportunities for innovation and creativity that translates into business and community results beyond anyone’s expectations.

Pamela W. Arnold is President of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, Inc. The organization is a 501(c)(3) public interest non-profit dedicated to advancing diversity thought leadership through research, education, and public outreach. AIMD works to strengthen our communities and institutions through effective diversity management.