The Anthropologist of Autism Employment

Source: Forbes Gwyneth Paltrow’s Take On Gender Inequality And Sexism Anthropologist Margaret Mead speaking in 1971. (AP Photo) An Anthropologist o

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Anthropologist Margaret Mead speaking in 1971. (AP Photo)

An Anthropologist on Mars is the title of Oliver Sacks’ 1993 influential essay on Temple Grandin — an essay that introduced Ms. Grandin and autism more generally to a broad audience. Sacks took the title from Ms. Grandin’s description of how she perceived daily social interactions. What would a non-autistic anthropologist today perceive if she or he were to study autism, and more specifically, autism employment? Is there an anthropology of autism employment, or more broadly, neurodiversity employment? Why should we care?

David Platzer, 34, is a doctoral student in medical anthropology at Johns Hopkins. For the past four years he has been immersed in these questions and others related to autism and neurodiversity employment (a term which indexes a range of other neurological differences that extend beyond autism). He has traveled throughout the United States, spent time in Bangalore, India, and has met with hundreds of adults on the autism spectrum and family members, as well as employers, job counselors and representatives of most of the major neurodiversity employment initiatives and prominent advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks and Specialisterne. He has conducted over 150 structured interviews and compiled an extensive archive of autistic employment histories.

Platzer is concerned with what’s going on beneath the surface of autism employment. And under this surface, he identifies three shifts quietly occurring in workplace culture, norms and beliefs that are relevant not only to neurodiverse adults and family members, but to a wider employment community.

  1. 1. Neurodiversity awareness in corporate culture: The concept of neurodiversity employment, for many years a fringe discussion, is slowly entering mainstream work culture. Steve Silberman’s best-selling book, NeuroTribes, which in 2015 popularized the idea of neurodiversity, continues to gain in influence, and the book has been joined by a regular stream of articles and essays about neurodiversity employment in venues like the Harvard Business Review, , The New York Times and elsewhere. Conferences and summits devoted to neurodiversity employment continue to grow in size and scope. The recent Autism at Work summit hosted by SAP and Microsoft in April attracted more companies, advocates and parents than in any previous year.

Major firms such as Airbnb, Salesforce, LinkedIn, and Facebook, are adding neurodiversity employment to their other diversity and inclusion efforts. Specific pilot projects are in the planning stages at other global firms. The number of neurodiverse hires so far remains very modest. But the ideas that neurodiversity employment brings value and leads to innovation are spreading among global firms.

  1. A movement to develop an economic case for neurodiversity employment, and more ambitiously, a science of neurodiversity employment: Researchers and consultants from a variety of disciplines — industrial relations, rehabilitation psychology, engineering, even business school faculty — are working to detail, measure and quantify the comparative advantages of neurodiverse adults in relation to neurotypical peers. By doing so, they hope to demonstrate to employers that the skills many neurodiverse adults possess (such as pattern recognition, attention to detail, ability to focus) justify their inclusion as good business, not a form of corporate charity.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in Australia has operated one of the leading autism employment initiatives since 2014, called the Dandelion program, growing to 58 employees as of early 2017. It has sought to capture and quantify the benefits of hiring neuodiverse employees using economic and statistical metrics through partnerships with academic researchers at Cornell’s Institute on Employment and Disability and Latrobe University. HPE’s Dandelion program employees work in three fields: software testing, data analytics and cybersecurity. The largest number, 37, are in software testing “pods,” teams working collaboratively and contracted out to the Australian government’s Department of Human Services.

According to HPE’s Michael Fieldhouse, the Dandelion architect, the pods of neurodiverse workers are achieving a higher level quality of testing than any software testers in the organization. They are…

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