Creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, fresh perspective, and a different way of looking at the world – these are just some of the qualities that neurodivergent individuals can offer to prospective employers.
But with different ways of thinking can also come barriers to employment that are difficult to overcome – screening methods, interview practices, and job requirements that are based on neurotypical behaviors and expectations too often exclude candidates before they have a chance to demonstrate their skills and talents.
People with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, and other neurological differences are collectively referred to as neurodivergent individuals, and they often experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, denying those individuals meaningful opportunities to live independent lives.
But a new initiative through UConn’s Werth Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is seeking to change that dynamic by supporting neuroinclusive policies in both higher education and employment – and not just here at UConn.
Aiming to change the narrative here in Connecticut – and nationally
“What we’re doing is, as a university, trying to be a leader in the space around improving employment outcomes for people with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and a whole host of other conditions that have barriers in the process of securing and then retaining employment,” explains Judy Reilly, the director of the Werth Institute’s Center for Neurodiversity & Employment Innovation at UConn.
With a background in business, special education, advocacy, and law, Reilly has two decades of experience working with neurodivergent individuals and their families in private practice, helping them navigate their pre-college and early college journeys.
In 2021, she joined the Werth Institute to help design, build, and direct a new effort to not only help better prepare neurodivergent students for life after graduation, but also to work with industry leaders to help them create more inclusive hiring practices and corporate cultures where a neurodiverse workforce can thrive.
For Reilly, joining the initiative was a natural extension of her advocacy career.
“When you’re talking about professional employment and that ever-popular need for a college degree, there are barriers along the educational journey,” Reilly says. “But then, separately and distinctly, there are barriers in the ability to search for, apply for, interview for, secure, and then retain employment that have to do a little bit with the candidate, but a lot with the employer and their own education, training, and practices. The center is really focused around how we work in that space to change things on a greater scale, not just for UConn and neurodivergent job seekers and Connecticut employers – although that’s kind of our lab, in Connecticut – but also nationally.”
While the initiative is not yet formally recognized as a center by the University – it plans to seek formal designation from the Board of Trustees before the end of this year – that hasn’t stopped Reilly from already actively working to distinguish UConn as a leader on neuroinclusivity in employment.
And it’s UConn’s approach, Reilly says, that distinguishes it from other colleges and universities working on neurodiversity initiatives.
“A lot of schools have taken up initiatives and centers around neurodiversity, but many of those are inward-focused on their own university communities,” she says. “UConn is distinct in so much as we’re looking at it societally.”
‘Music to my ears’
To that end, the center has launched and is leading the University Council for Neurodiversity Employment, a collaborative group open to all colleges and universities committed to improving neurodiversity inclusion in employment for students and alumni. The council currently includes more than 45 institutions that are working toward crafting common standards and practices within higher education to help prepare neurodivergent students for employment post-graduation.
Its creation was “music to my ears,” says Stephen DeStefani, a technology business services executive and leader of the highly successful Neurodiversity Program at Wells Fargo, and a UConn center partner who has been working for some time within a landscape of vastly different individual university neurodiversity programs, encountering varying standards and inconsistent practices, all with different considerations, objectives, and outcomes.
“I feel oftentimes – and correctly so, they’re academic institutions – the focus is in and around graduation,” says DeStefani, “but we’ve got to move past that. I’d love to begin to see universities and colleges start to set their target outcomes with employment.”
The center’s work also caught the attention of Joshua Crafford, a vice president and learning leader at Synchrony, who is one of the leaders for the financial firm’s internal People with Disabilities Network.
“I, myself, am neurodivergent, and this is something that I’ve been wanting to get involved in,” Crafford says, “but I haven’t had the opportunity that the UConn Center for Neurodiversity provides. So, as soon as I heard the center was opening up, I reached out and said, ‘I’d love the opportunity to talk to Judy.’”
Partnership with the two companies, as well as with Travelers and KPMG, are critical, according to Reilly, because for any initiatives on the education side to be successful, companies need to be a part of finding effective solutions.
“Wells Fargo is getting it right on the employer side, and they’d like to partner with a school that understands how to get it right on the pre-employment side – not that UConn has figured that out yet, but we understand what needs to happen,” Reilly says. “Synchrony has been great, because they’ve produced something tangible with UConn’s center.”
A plan to create inclusive cultures in workplaces
That tangible product is a five-week course that Synchrony is currently piloting, called, “Neurodiversity: Building an Inclusive Culture.”
“Each week, it’s two-hour, live-instructor led, with about 30 minutes of homework in between, and it is to help identify what neurodiversity is – and we’re focusing on the big three: ADHD, dyslexia, and high-functioning autism,” says Crafford. “We’re talking about the strengths and the challenges that people with those traits encounter and how building an inclusive culture of support and different accommodations can help not just neurodivergent employees, but all employees.”
Once the pilot is complete, the course will be finalized and made available through UConn to interested companies, both large and small, as a tool for moving their organizations towards neurodiversity practices and knowledge.
“This course is not just information-based,” Crafford explains. “The course is active learning, and it’s experiencing what it’s like to be a neurodivergent person so that everybody in the class, from where they sit within the organization, can know how they can help to make changes to build a more inclusive environment.”
The center is also leading a pilot program of a platform designed specifically for connecting neurodivergent job seekers with potential employers, called Mentra.
“The platform works in a really thoughtful, educational way for job seekers, and for employers who are saying, ‘teach us, help us understand, and also source talent,’” says Reilly. “We have about 3,500 self-identified neurodivergent job seekers on the platform, and UConn is leading the pilot with 30 other universities. The hope, through the pilot, is to educate people not only about the supportive platform, but also about how aggregating the supply of college-level neurodivergent job seekers can drive employers to the behaviors we want. If we make it easy to tap the talent, and easy to learn what you need to do differently if you’re tapping this talent, then we hopefully drive more employers to this area.”
An essential ingredient for success in the 21st century
It’s a full workload for Reilly, who hopes to add to the center’s staff while also recruiting more corporate partners; continuing to work with existing partners like Synchrony, Wells Fargo, Travelers, and KPMG; and also partnering with faculty and researchers working around neurodiversity employment issues.
“Companies are recognizing the innovation, creative thinking, and ability to solve problems in a really unique and different way that neurocognitive distinction brings with it,” Reilly says, “talents and skills that other people who are maybe more neurotypical just don’t have.”
Crafford hopes future collaboration with the center will help to develop a playbook for how employers can best support and build an inclusive culture.
“Working with Judy has been phenomenal,” he says. “It has definitely accelerated everything that I wanted to do, and it has opened my eyes to how much more can be done.”
For DeStefani – who has already seen how implementing a diverse and inclusive corporate culture can benefit an organization – working with the needs of the neurodivergent community always in mind is essential.
“One of the key success factors for us is that we develop, lead, and execute our program in partnership with the community – they are critical,” he says. “With the center, I think it’s important that we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and develop a strategic vision. Our partnership with UConn’s center continues to be reciprocating and mutually beneficial, and we continue to share ideas and establish best practices to develop a modern playbook that accounts for the considerations of the community and the needs of both educational considerations and employers.”
For more information about the Center for Neurodiversity & Employment Innovation, visit entrepreneurship.uconn.edu/neurodiversitycenter.