Neurodiversity in Artificial Intelligence
Neurodiversity is the concept of neurological differences observed in human variations. Historically, these differences have been labeled as Autistic Spectrum, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, etc.. At times, we were quick to call neurodivergence a developmental disorder or a disease. But, we know much more now. Neurodiversity is a competitive advantage. In the age of Artificial Intelligence, our societies have unique opportunities to harness the power of neurodiverse talent to create acceptance, foster innovation, and evolve into societies of trust.
The Importance of Understanding Neurodiversity
According to the CDC, in the US, one in every 42 boys, and one in every 189 girls born are neurodiverse. Between 2000 and 2018, in the US, the percentage of 8-year-olds diagnosed with autism increased 150 percent. By the age of 25, many neurodiverse children age out of the system that provides them with the therapies that they need to adjust to our neurotypical world. In the US, approximately 50,000 neurodiverse children will age out of the system each year. In recent years, due to the lack of diagnosis earlier in their life, a large percentage of adults are being diagnosed as neurodiverse.
As we face increasing numbers of children and adults who are neurodiverse, we all have to understand what neurodiversity means, how we can be empowered to live and work with our neurodiverse peers.
In the coming years, one of the biggest issues for our society will be the employment and empowerment of neurodiverse talent who age out of the system.
Neurodiversity is an opportunity
In the last decade, large companies, particularly technology companies realized that they had neurodiverse talent on their staff. Many of these employees contribute their special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics on teams working to solve highly complex problems. Historically, due to the lack of understanding from management, neurodiverse talent often had issues adjusting to the corporate work culture. Companies such as SAP, HPE, Microsoft, Willis Towers Watson, Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, EY, IBM, JPMorganChase, and UBS slowly realized the need to retain their neurodiverse talent and help them have long careers within the company.
Today, many companies see hiring neurodiverse talent as an opportunity. They are making changes in hiring, retention, and management practices to make more opportunities available. This is good news for many neurodiverse children who will age out of the system in this decade.
Artificial Intelligence is Helping to Create Jobs for Neurodiverse Talent
In the age of Artificial Intelligence, there’s an increasing need for superior technologists, analysts, and scientists who can work on difficult problems. Often, neurodiverse talent who possess above average intelligence and special talents in memory, pattern recognition, and mathematics are most suited to do this type of work.
For instance, in machine learning testing, many companies have found that Neurodiverse employees will outperform anyone else. At the same time, modeling and data science where recognizing patterns and understanding quantitative concepts is essential, can allow neurodiverse talent to shine.
The use of AI-enabled tools for hiring and management allowed companies to quantify criteria to screen talent for neurodiversity, and recognize issues associated with adapting to a neurotypical workplace.
Neurodiversity Means a Wide Spectrum
One of the biggest challenges in hiring neurodiverse talent is recognizing the wide spectrum of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity covers a wide spectrum of categories such as, Autism, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder, and other conditions. Within each of these categories, there’s a spectrum of affected behaviors. For instance, on the high end of the spectrum, someone who has High Functioning Autism who is also gifted, might be able to adapt to a corporate work environment and use their special skills. However, what about someone who is not not the high functioning end of the spectrum?
According to CDC, at least half of the children who are on the Autism Spectrum are not on the high end of the spectrum. Regardless of intellectual ability, these children also possess special skills. For instance, these children like routine, seek comfort in repetitive behaviors, and are extra sensitive to their environment. Many of them also need routine visual therapy to increase hand-eye coordination.
Recognizing the need for therapy, and playing to this type of neurodiverse talent’s tendency to thrive in work that is structured and repetitive, companies are creating jobs for employees with this type of neurodiverse talent.
In the age of AI, many companies are looking closely at their workflow to see where automation is needed. To bridge the gap between automation and current workflow, often, there may be an opportunity to create jobs for neurodiverse talent.
The Story of SYNQ3
SYNQ3 Restaurant Solutions started as a company using intelligent (or AI-enabled) virtual assistant technology to automate the ordering flow at Drive-thrus of some of the biggest restaurant chains such as Chipotle Mexican Grill. In time, the company CEO, Steve Bigari realized that there was a unique opportunity to create a position for neurodiverse talent. In order to add the “human” touch to their intelligent virtual assistant technology, there was a need for an “intent analyst” to help the machine identify specific words in the orders placed by the customer at the drive-thru.
This “intent analyst” thrives on using their hearing sensitivity to listen intently to the order that the customer’s placing, then using a touchscreen, to select the correct order for the customer. For the neurodiverse talent, this type of position not only allows for a degree of empowerment, it also provides the needed “visual therapy” and social interactions. The company not only makes all the necessary accommodations for their neurodiverse hires. They also pay them more than the minimum wage.
This is a great example of a company in the midst of automating a workflow for AI that identified a skills gap and a need for the neurodiverse talent to fill.
Hiring Neurodiverse Talent Means Empowerment
As more and more neurodiverse talent ages out of the system, there’s an increased burden for families to care for them. Some might live in a group home and have a job to go to. But, others might still live at home. Not having a job and without therapy, means that they may regress in the progress they have made socially.
Therefore, hiring neurodiverse talent is the key to empower them and their families.
If a job can deliver needed therapy as well as social interactions to the neurodiverse talent every day, then it will mean a better life for both the neurodiverse talent and their families. The money earned from the job can allow the neurodiverse talent to pay for additional therapies. These therapies can help them to adapt better to the neurotypical world. At the same time, having a job can provide a sense of independence. For the families of neurodiverse talent, this means that when the talent ages out of the system, the family’s lifestyle does not have to change dramatically.
Hiring Neurodiverse Talent Can Change the Company’s Culture for the Better
Hiring neurodiverse talent, not only empowers the talent and their families, it also empowers the companies to establish an inclusive culture and foster innovation. One of the key issues in today’s workplace centers around the toxic work environment. Workers are increasingly disengaged. Having neurodiverse talent who can contribute to teams can change the teammate’s perspectives about diversity in general and breath new fresh air into the team. Teammates can become more open to accepting the accommodations of neurodiverse talent demonstrates their unique contributions. In turn, the team becomes more inclusive. Everyone on the team becomes more open-minded.
In other words, hiring neurodiverse talent into existing teams is also an exercise in empathy. Companies who have successfully integrated neurodiverse talent into their organizations, may experience both growth in innovation capital and growth in empathy inside the organization.
Adjust Hiring Practices to Hire More Neurodiverse Talent
Even though, we have a great need to hire neurodiverse talent, some companies are still finding difficulties in hiring from the neurodiverse talent pool. One company that has changed the hiring practices of neurodiverse talent for the better is Specialisterne.
In 2004, Thorkil Sonne founded Specialisterne, motivated by the autism diagnosis of his third child. He then developed other methods for interviewing, assessing, training, and managing neurodiverse talent. In 2008, through his Specialist People Foundation, he started to spread his Specialisterne approach to multinational companies to convince them to hire more neurodiverse employees.
One of the features of the Specialisterne approach is to use half a day hangouts, comfortable gatherings, where job candidates can interact with company managers. During these hangout sessions, some candidates are selected for further assessments. Further assessments are often project based. A typical type of assessment involves using Lego Mindstorm robotic construction and programming kits to work on assigned projects.
Companies often extend the Specialisterne approach to social skills training to help job candidates assimilate to the work environment. Career management programs also need to be established to better assist with career development of neurodiverse employees. This often means extending help into the neurodiverse talent’s private lives to help them to live better. Large companies such as SAP have partnered with non-profit or government agencies to provide the necessary services needed to help neurodiverse employees in their private life.
Making Accomodations and Challenges in Management
The most challenging and the most rewarding part of hiring neurodiverse talent is to train, manage, and help them to have long lasting careers. Often, neurodiverse talent requires special accommodations without self-identification. Self-identification means the need for the neurodiverse talent to disclose their neurodiversity. Without self-identification, colleagues can easily be confused and agitated at “special” accomodations made for the neurodiverse talent.
For a neurodiverse talent, one of the biggest challenges in the workplace is “overstimulation”. A multitude of neurodiverse talent may need their own workspace or even an office to be able to concentrate. Others have trouble coping with major changes. The neurodiverse talent can have perfectionist tendencies, which creates problems when they have to meet deadlines. Managers also need to help employees manage their unusual levels of anxiety and stress. Having sensitivity to these unique sensory needs of Neurodiverse employees is needed from management.
The good news is that hiring neurodiverse talent helps to change the company culture for the better. Historically, companies often required employees to fit into their pre-established mold while trimming irregularities. Now, with neurodiverse talent, companies are accommodating the needs of these employees. Recognizing that the unique talents of neurodiverse employees can contribute to our “innovation” future, companies are more willing to do what it takes to accommodate. In turn, companies are setting the foundation for building a more inclusive and empathetic company culture.
In the age of AI, we have unique opportunities to hire and better the lives of neurodiverse talent. With an increasing number of children diagnosed with neurodiversity each year, we will see transformations in our corporate culture by embracing neurodiverse adults into the workforce. Whether or not they are high functioning, neurodiverse adults can help all of us to be more open-minded and to see the world differently.