More Companies See 'Neurodiverse' Job Candidates As Untapped Talent Pool

Download Audio
An increasing number of companies are reaching out to include "neurodiverse" candidates who they say can have unique talents. (889520/Pixabay)
An increasing number of companies are reaching out to include "neurodiverse" candidates who they say can have unique talents. (889520/Pixabay)

For many young people, a job search is fraught with anxiety — what to wear, what to say. But for candidates with neurological differences like autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder, difficulties like making eye contact, fidgeting or an unusual speech pattern can make the task even more challenging.

Now, an increasing number of companies are reaching out to include "neurodiverse" candidates who they say can offer unique talents.

Among them is Microsoft, which through its Autism Hiring Program is trying to address an under- and unemployment rate for people with autism of about 80 percent, says Neil Barnett, who leads inclusive hiring and accessibility at the company.

"We're looking for the same things that we look [for] in all employees: We're looking for talent, we're looking for people that work with one another, we're looking for people that can really make an impact with the products and services that we're producing," Barnett tells Here & Now's Robin Young.

Someone who knows the frustrations of applying to jobs as a neurodiverse person firsthand is 28-year-old Oliver Willcox. Along with a master's degree in applied math from Loyola University Chicago, Willcox has ADHD, social anxiety and a speech and language disorder. He says he applied to over 100 jobs before being hired at a Boston software-testing company called Iterators, which only hires neurodiverse candidates.

"It was very frustrating," Willcox says of his search. "I was told that I was not a culture fit, or appeared very nervous. They turned me down not because of my skills, but because of things I can't change about myself."

Interview Highlights

On the difficulties of applying to jobs as a neurodiverse person

Oliver Willcox: "I applied to pharma companies, universities, hospitals, financial institutions and more. And for all the jobs, I had the skills, and passed the assignments and was excited about the company. I learned that people underestimated me because I talked a little differently, even though I had the skills for the job. They often assumed I was too nervous, and that maybe it was because I tend to fidget and take some extra time to share my thoughts."

On companies hearing from neurodiverse people about these challenges

Neil Barnett: "I would say the interview process for anyone is a challenging experience. But definitely we've seen candidates that are on the autism spectrum express the same things that Oliver had stated — whether it's making eye contact, or just the initial interaction. One of the reasons we created this program at Microsoft is to really think about how we could be more inclusive and have an interview process that candidates could come, be their selves and really showcase their skills to get employment."

"I learned that people underestimated me because I talked a little differently, even though I had the skills for the job."

Oliver Willcox, on his experience applying for jobs as a neurodiverse person

On how Microsoft's program works

Barnett: "If you think about going through that traditional front door at a company, our front door is a little bit different. For candidates in this program, it's a five-day program, and we really bring the candidates and let them get comfortable, get to know one another, get to know the hiring teams. We do team exercises, kind of like the marshmallow challenges where you use toothpicks and marshmallows to build a bridge, to kind of look at teamwork. We spend time doing practice interviews, and then like anything else, we do typical interviews like we do at Microsoft, but instead of doing it in one day back to back, we spread out over two days.

" ... The whole goal of the program is just letting candidates have a better way to showcase and shine their skills, than just that typical, one-day, intensive interview that many companies do."

On working at Iterators

Willcox: "I'm a software tester. I find errors and bugs in websites and mobile apps, so companies can fix them and have their products run smoothly. My favorite job so far has been with a company called Hydro, which is working on a new rowing machine. I test their software while rowing, because that's when their errors occur.

"Sometimes the statistics are wrong on the exercise machine, or the workout ends too early, or something like that."

On the upshot of the Autism Hiring Program for Microsoft

Barnett: "We're looking at it as a business, and the business impact. And again, it's finding talent. The spectrum is wide and diverse, and so everyone brings something unique to the table, and we have people that we've hired that are writing code that's being used by millions of people, or they're contributing to the next version of Windows or Office. And so again, for us, it's been a talent play."

On underemployment among neurodiverse people

Barnett: "We have individuals with four-year degrees, master's, Ph.D.s, that are working at retail or packing boxes, and they're not utilizing their skills. This is why a program that can be more inclusive and help you screen in individuals to find the talent is something that both Microsoft and other companies are finding really valuable."

On how programs like Microsoft's and others can help neurodiverse people

Willcox: "It's good to hear that people are realizing that people who are neurodiverse can have some things that they can offer the companies that other people can't, and that would make it easier to get good jobs for other people who are neurodiverse."

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on January 3, 2019.


Headshot of Robin Young

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



More from Here & Now

Listen Live