Useful Tips in Finding the Right Roads to Employment for Neurodivergent People
By Lee Burdette Williams
If you’re like me, you enjoy looking at a road map while traveling. As a child, I loved to sit in the backseat of the car, behind my parents, with a road atlas in my lap and follow our route along the page, excited to turn to the next page when we’d made enough progress. I loved seeing the names of towns, spotting landmarks, noting when we moved from one highway to another.
So perhaps that early interest in maps is why I often find myself thinking about the complicated landscape of employment that autistic and other neurodivergent people face. For our purposes, we use the term “neurodivergent” to include autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, and related brain-based differences distinct from “neurotypical.” We also include conditions like mental illness, anxiety, etc.
Of course, all job exploration involves some map-reading, but in my work as the executive director of the College Autism Network, I find the employment landscape for autistic and neurodivergent people to be particularly chaotic.
Some of that chaos, though, actually makes me more optimistic. What is making the landscape crowded these days is the growth of services and organizations that support autistic individuals in their journey toward meaningful work, as well as the rapid increase in the number of employers who are creating neurodiversity hiring initiatives that encourage the recruitment, hiring and retention of autistic employees.
If I were to create a planned route for this journey, I would start, as we sometimes do when planning a road trip, by making lists. What’s the best route? Where should we stop? What do we want to see on the way (is there anything worth a detour, for example)? And of course, what is our final destination? The College Autism Network, in partnership with Vanderbilt’s Frist Center for Autism and Innovation, is doing just that: creating an travel plan that becomes a road map that then helps autistic and other neurodivergent individuals find their way to a destination of meaningful, fairly compensated, and hopefully enjoyable work.
Some of the key markers on our map are these:
- Job boards specifically created to highlight opportunities for neurodivergent individuals. While autistic and other neurodivergent applicants can check the usual employment sites like LinkedIn, Monster.com, and Indeed, neurodivergent job boards highlight opportunities advertised by employers who seek to hire a neurodiverse workforce. You can find a list on the College Autism Network’s website.
- Training for career counselors. The College Autism Network works primarily with campus-based and independent support programs that serve students seeking a college degree who need a level of academic and social support that might exceed what college and university services typically provide. But rather than grow those programs (something difficult to do in an era of fiscal constraints), we encourage campuses to build the skills of all of their employees to serve autistic and neurodivergent students. With our partners at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, we created an online curriculum, Autism Career Empowerment that provides free and easily accessible training for career counselors who want to better understand and support their autistic and neurodivergent students in their career planning and job searches. As of July 2022, more than 40 individuals have taken at least portions of this training. Our College Autism Network campus consulting and conference presentations do the same: strengthen existing services rather than rely on new programs.
- Connections with partners. There has been encouraging growth in the number of professionals and organizations using technology and evidence-based practices to support autistic individuals who need or desire support beyond campus resources. Coaching, skills assessment, and interview preparation are the “landmark sites” on our map that help a traveler move forward. Some of the best ones we know are Neurodiversity in the Workplace, NeuroGuides, Integrate Autism Advisors, and Forward Motion. An organization called Neurodiversity Employment Network does a good job pulling a lot of resources together. But these are just a few. Many individual and small-group coaches and consultants are available. Most charge a fee (some do not, and bring in revenue through successful placement), but if they can help an autistic or neurodivergent person land a great opportunity, it’s a worthwhile investment.
On the technology front, partners like Mentra are helping both candidates and employers overcome the many obstacles to hiring autistic and neurodivergent talent, creating alternate routes for the all-important first impressions and early interviews. Mentra offers a platform for candidates to create a portfolio to market themselves and their skills without relying on traditional methods that often disadvantage neurodivergent individuals.
- Employer neurodiversity hiring initiatives. It seems that every day I learn of a new employer–large, small, tech-oriented, customer-facing, research, manufacturing–all types–announcing a new neurodiversity hiring initiative. While most announcements talk about the moral imperative of diversifying the workforce, the truth is that employers can more easily make a business case for the perspectives and productivity that autistic and neurodivergent employees offer when they are given the opportunity and support to find their niche in a corporate or company culture.
As most fourth-graders know from their history and geography lessons, early maps were a little short on details. Explorers often had a blank page with a few lines here and there, and the earliest adventurers had to contend with the possibility that “here be dragons” at the edge of the map. In the autism employment world, we are slowly starting to fill in the blank spaces, surveying and placing road signs, creating new pathways, and keeping track of it all on the most up-to-date map we can create. We at the College Autism Network are excited to be part of this important journey in the lives of autistic and other neurodivergent individuals.
Lee Burdette Williams is the executive director of the College Autism Network, a nonprofit organization that links various stakeholders to improve access, experiences and outcomes for autistic and other neurodivergent college students. She previously worked at several colleges and universities in different roles, including vice president for student affairs at Wheaton College, Norton, MA, and dean of students at the University of Connecticut.