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Neurodiversity in Silicon Valley

March 28, 2019 | Georgina Varley

Technology Neuroscience

The San Francisco Bay Area is home to one of the largest autism diagnosis clusters. Here's why tech companies in California need to embrace neurodiversity. 

Many of history's greatest thinkers have been neurodivergent. This includes the likes of Albert EinsteinSir Isaac Newton, Bill Gates, and Barbara McClintock who were all on the autism spectrum. The influence that these individuals have had on humanity is indicative of neurodiversity's potential in the workplace. Difference should be celebrated and a growing number of businesses are embracing the unique viewpoints of those considered 'non-neurotypical'.

What is neurodiversity?

Neurological differences are the result of natural variations in the human genome, neurodiversity recognises and respects this. These variations include, but are not limited to, autism and Asperger syndrome, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourette syndrome.

Moving away from the archaic, unscientific view that neurologically atypical people suffer from something that needs to be cured, into a realm where we embrace difference, is the first step towards dispelling the stigma that surrounds this group of people.

How many people in the US are neurodivergent?

About 1% of the global population are believed to be on the autism spectrum, with 450,000 people in the US estimated to be living with a diagnosed conditionHowever, this figure could be much higher. 

As autism is wrongly considered a 'male condition' and women do not manifest their symptoms in the same way as men, it is likely that there are many undiagnosed females living with autism in America. 

“Recent research suggests that the number of males and females on the autism spectrum is far more equal than previously thought and diagnostic statistics suggest,” said Carol Povey, director of the National Autistic Society’s Centre for Autism

“The problem is that professionals often don’t understand the different ways autism can manifest in women and girls, with many going through their lives without a diagnosis and an understanding of why they feel different,” she added.

Why is there a high number of neurodivergent people in Silicon Valley?

California scientists have discovered clusters of autism where children are twice as likely to have the condition as infants in surrounding areas. The top 10 clusters were found among children with scholarly parents and San Francisco's vibrant tech hub is filled with intelligent individuals from highly educated backgrounds.

There was a sevenfold increase in the number of autistic children between 1990 and 2006 in California and, while experts say that improved diagnoses can explain a portion of this increase, environmental causes — such as a significant number of educated parents being drawn to the area by the Silicon Valley tech boom — may be responsible for the rest.

Tech superheroes

Why should Silicon Valley tech companies support neurodiversity in the workplace?

When 99% of neurologically identical employees fail to solve a problem, it could be the other 1% who discover the solution. 

Autistic people tend to have IQs that are average or above average and there are clear benefits and competitive advantages to having a workforce that thinks differently.

Constructive attributes commonly associated with neurodivergent employees include: 

  • Creativity.
  • Lateral thinking.
  • Strategic analysis. 
  • Grasp of complicated mathematics.
  • Pattern recognition.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Sustained concentration.
  • Error detection.
  • Consistency in tasks once mastered. 
  • Processing data quickly.

A quote from European Women in Tech speaker Viola Sommer featured in Lucy Cousins' Tech Nation article on neurodiversity reads:

"One of the more prevalent theories of autism is that the autistic brain is more connected than the non-autistic brain. They perceive and process more at any point in time than a non-autistic person. That cognitive style [...] can bring about the amazing gifts that we see in many autistic people,”

Due to these positive traits, a growing number of prominent Silicon Valley tech businesses have reformed their HR processes in order to access neurodiverse talent. This includes SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft and Ford 

Of these companies, SAP has the longest-running programme. The multinational software corporation is already reaping the benefits of this. Beyond improving its reputation as a diversity and inclusion champion, SAP has noticed significant increases in employee engagement, productivity gains, and quality improvement.

By 2020, the business intends to have approximately 965 employees who are differently abled, a figure chosen to correspond with the number of autistic people worldwide in relation to the size of the company — 1%. 

What practices can Silicon Valley employers put in place to support neurodivergent people?

When looking to recruit from a pool of diverse candidates, the first step needs to be switching up the interview process. Autistic people communicate differently and often find pressurised social situations challenging.

As a result, standard job interviews are not the correct way to go about hiring people who are non-neurotypical. To offer these individuals a fair chance in an interview setting, the form of assessment needs to be numbers and skills-based. Don't hire with a 'culture fit' rationale!

If you are an employer reading this, here's what you can do to accommodate your autistic staff members:

Provide structure and predictability

  • Set in stone routines that are only disrupted for reasons that can be predicted ahead of time.
  • Define clear project ownership.
  • Be explicit about what they're doing well and what can be improved upon.

Relieve the social pressure 

  • Differently abled people usually find it a challenge to navigate interpersonal politics, so don't require them to enter any leadership roles if they aren't willing. 
  • Don't put your employees on the spot during meetings. Use non-confrontational procedures and give them the option to provide anonymous feedback.
  • Make sure performance reviews do not focus on how much the reviewer identifies with the employee, rather how well they're carrying out their duties. 
  • Don't make attendance mandatory at office parties. Allow your workers to assess whether each social situation is right for them.

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Avoid sensory overload.

  • Many adult autistic individuals 'stim' or self-stimulate when they start to feel overwhelmed, drowning out external sounds, sights, and smells. As an employer, you should be able to recognise when this is happening and offer the person a chance to find a safe space to calm down.  
  • Allow your neurodivergent workforce to sit facing a wall, wear sunglasses, or listen to music while they work. These are all harmless coping mechanisms that will allow them to focus.
  • Too many people speaking at once can lead to sensory overload. It is best to avoid putting too much emphasis on face-to-face conversations. Offer your workers the opportunity to discuss their work e-mail if they are likely to feel overwhelmed. 

Educate yourself and your team

  • Share with your team the fact that your new employee is 'non-neurotypical', what it means to be autistic, and why hiring this type of person matters to your tech business. 
  • Provide neurodiversity training for those who will be working closely with your new worker.
  • Adjust your managerial style to fit the personalities of your new employee, this worker's abilities will far outweigh the time it takes to make the shift.

Autism speaks to technological advancement, find out more about the neurodiversity movement at Women of Silicon Valley.

Be inspired by the ecosystem's most influential women in technology, network with like-minded female founders, liaise with top Silicon Valley tech companies and enhance your skills portfolio in a passion-charged atmosphere. Don't just be part of the conversation — drive it!JOIN THE MOVEMENTWomen in California

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