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Want to fix that worker shortage? Pa.’s autistic, neurodiverse residents are ready | Opinion

Different brains communicate differently and have different priorities Accepting that both are valuable would make a world of difference

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By Johanna Murphy

For the past several months, I’ve seen op-eds and think pieces meditating on the current national hiring crisis – jobs all over the country are going unfilled. It’s a phenomenon that we’re familiar with in Pennsylvania. For years, as our population shifted, regional workforce development discussions have lamented the shortage of skilled workers.

Despite the fact that Pennsylvania is our nation’s fifth-most populous state, our population growth trails that of the rest of the nation.  In 2021, we lost another congressional seat and an electoral vote. It’s reasonable to assume that our slower population growth also plays a role in the expansion, or lack of expansion, of our economy.

The commonwealth of Pennsylvania has the third highest percentage of elderly residents in the United States with nearly two million residents over the age of 65.

The truth is that both sorts of brains are valuable in the workplace and making conscious decisions to welcome both in the workplace is in our economy’s best interest.

While our population growth is slow, our aging rate is pretty high. We can see this in the rapid rate of retirement by the Baby Boomer generation. It’s a big problem when you consider we aren’t replacing our population at the same pace that our workforce needs are expanding. It’s not just the pandemic that has impacted businesses’ ability to hire; it’s a structural change in population.

I’d take a minute to draw attention to an amazing, untapped pool of talent: autistic and neurodiverse young people.

Did you know that 20% of the U.S. population is neurodiverse?  This includes autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, sensory processing disorder and more.

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Twenty percent means that in Pennsylvania, with a population 12.96 million, roughly 2.59 million people are neurodiverse.  And 62.7% of our total population is prime working age – 16 to 64 years old.  There’s no reason to think that the neurodiverse population would be spread out any differently. This means we can reasonably assume that 1,625,184 of those neurodiverse people are prime working age.

I’m sure you can see the powerful impact this number could have on our region.

Again, our population is distributed amongst different age brackets. By my back-of-the-envelope math, Pennsylvania’s young adult population is 25.8%, and reason says the neurodiverse population will be distributed similarly. So, by my count there are about 406,296 neurodiverse young adults in Pennsylvania at this time.

We know from national studies that approximately 44% of the neurodiverse young adults engage in some form of post-secondary education, and that 34% have earned a bachelor’s degree. Yet, national figures indicate that unemployment for young neurodiverse adults is 30-40%, while unemployment for autistic young people is even higher – as much as 85% for those with college degrees. That is a lot of talent sitting on the bench!

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What’s the problem?  How do we bridge the disconnect between a willing and able pool of talent and jobs that are going unfilled? By changing our thinking.

We’re starting to understand that much of what has been historically thought of as “communication deficits” in autism and neurodiversity aren’t defects, but rather differences in wiring and represent a naturally occurring different style of brain.

Amongst themselves, autistic and neurodiverse people get along marvelously and rarely misunderstand each other. It’s only in mixed company that things get dicey.

The Harvard Business Review published an article in December 2021,  Autism Doesn’t Hold People Back at Work. Discrimination Does.

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The main take-away from the article is that it’s social and personality barriers that keep neurodiverse talent out of the workplace – from the lunchroom to the application process. “The personality-focused job application process is a barrier for many people who may be better at performing the job than at talking about themselves – and it is just one example of the many workplace ‘norms’ which are not inclusive of neurodiversity.”

We all know that cultural fit on the job is important. We also know that a flourishing business doesn’t require total uniformity; in fact, diverse points of view are an asset in decision-making and development. It’s time to operationalize the ideal of cognitive diversity, and it’s a lot more mundane than theoretical. How do you do that?

You investigate your hiring practices!  Do they make space for neurodivergent applicants to shine, or do they insist on the old formula of firm handshake, eye contact and robust self-promotion?  Investigate your mentoring practices beyond simple training.

Are new hires assigned a more senior staffer as their “go to” person as they learn the ropes the first year? Investigate the culture of your workplace. Really investigate it. How are personality clashes handled by management?  Is there a culture of blame?  Favoritism?

Competition for credit for ideas?  Has “competition,” in retrospect, really been used as an excuse for a culture that allows bullying in the workplace?

I work for an autism services nonprofit, and I’m an autistic adult, and I find that the HBR piece holds water. We are all social creatures and getting along is essential in the workplace.

However, simple changes like accepting that different brains communicate differently and have different priorities, and that both types of brains are valuable, would make a world of difference in everyone’s productivity.

For instance, autistics in particular are extremely task-oriented; psychologists call it “monotropism.” We like to work, and we dislike having our work interrupted.

We tend to skip out on water-cooler conversations because we’re eager to get back to our desks. We value efficiency to a high degree and tend to be very direct in conversation.

Neurotypical co-workers often interpret these traits as proof that we don’t like our co-workers, when that’s not the case at all; we’re just neurologically focused on “being at work” while neurotypicals are similarly focused on being “part of the group.”

The truth is that both sorts of brains are valuable in the workplace and making conscious decisions to welcome both in the workplace is in our economy’s best interest.

Johanna Murphy is the development director of Evolve Coaching. She writes from Pittsburgh.

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