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North Carolina wants to attract more neurodivergent people to IT work. It is one of many such initiatives in government.
A new paid internship program with the North Carolina Department of Information Technology is looking to recruit people with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other “neurodivergent” disorders to work in IT.
The types of jobs the program offers will change based on need, but the two in the works now include one focused on providing user support experience and the other on providing an opportunity to work “at the enterprise level to help increase privacy awareness, which is a big initiative of our agency,” said Joey Harrison, the department’s human resources director.
The opportunities are full time, run three to six months, pay $20 an hour and build on previous internships that the department has offered to people with autism spectrum disorder.
“It’s important for us to have internship opportunities where whoever we hire as an intern gains real-world experience in technology,” Harrison said. “We want to make sure the internship is challenging, but we also want it to be something that a person, particularly from the neurodiverse community, is going to feel comfortable in, that they’re supported the way they should be supported.”
The work that the internship program offers is a departure from the types of low-level janitorial or data entry jobs many people who are neurodivergent typically get—assuming they get jobs at all. About 30% to 40% of neurodivergent adults are unemployed, according to a National Association of Counties blog post.
But North Carolina’s efforts illustrate how neurodiversity—differences in how the brain processes information, because of conditions such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia—is gaining recognition in the workplace as a beneficial attribute. They also come amid a nationwide push by President Joe Biden to increase diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the workplace.
In March, on World Autism Awareness Day, Biden released a proclamation calling for employers to “boost employment opportunities for autistic and other historically marginalized Americans.” Part of that order includes helping state and local governments use federal funds to hire workers with autism through competitive integrated employment practices.
Initiatives like North Carolina’s may also be gaining traction because of the growth of neurodivergent diagnoses, creating a bigger hiring pool. For instance, 1 in 54 children had been diagnosed with autism by age 8 in 2016 versus 1 in 150 in 2000, according to a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Whatever the motivation, the efforts are welcome, said Michael Bernick, an employment attorney at Duane Morris and former director of the California Department of Labor.
“In this neurodiversity employment field, there’s been an enormous amount of energy over the past 10 years,” he said. “A lot of people are involved in what can be done to better integrate this population into employment, and one part of that that’s growing, and that I think is very important, is employment of neurodiverse adults in local and state governments.”
Bernick highlighted three benefits to hiring neurodiverse workers. One is that as governments encourage the private sector to make these hires, doing it themselves sends a consistent message. Second, employees who are neurodiverse tend to be more loyal and appreciative of the job, so they’re likely to stay longer, although he said there’s no hard data on that. Third, he said employers often describe their work environment as more uplifting or positive when it includes neurodiverse team members.
Despite the efforts and benefits, the number of neurodiverse workers remains low. To illustrate, Bernick pointed to a California program created to increase the number of neurodiverse people working for the state. It gives interns on-the-job coaching to develop the skills and abilities they need to meet the minimum qualifications of their intended job classification, as well as career guidance so that when their paid internships end, they can apply for state agency positions.
“We have over 200,000 workers in our state government, and the numbers of people engaged in the state internship program is still probably about less than 50, and only a small percentage of them have moved into regular jobs,” Bernick said. “There’s a lot of rhetoric on this subject, a lot of interest, but the numbers still are very modest.”
Mark Erlichman is working to change that. As deputy director of the Vocational Rehabilitation Employment Division at the California Department of Rehabilitation, or DOR, he is working with state departments to help them recruit neurodiverse candidates.
He’s also working to change the types of jobs neurodivergent workers get. “We very rarely saw people who had intellectual development disabilities in an office position,” Erlichman said. “We see them in janitorial and custodial positions, some manual labor positions, but there wasn’t ever really a pathway into professional positions.”
The DOR Pathways to Success Project, which trains people with disabilities for careers in advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, construction and transportation, green energy, health care, and IT and communications, are “programs purposely designed to get that barrier knocked down,” he added.
In North Carolina, Harrison said working within state organizations to build a network of caring supervisors who are willing to be patient with neurodiverse workers is also key. The Department of Information Technology has worked with some of its partners, such as the autism society, on sharing resources, but most leaders who have sought out neurodiverse workers have personal experience with such individuals.
He said he plans to emphasize training as the department increases internship opportunities, adding that cybersecurity and broadband expansion are two areas ripe for more hands.
“We want to make sure folks see us as a destination employer, and we want to have diversity of thought and diversity of background with our workforce,” Harrison said. “Focusing on neurodiverse population is one way we … go about that.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.