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How Embracing Neurodiversity Makes the Workplace Better

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I’m a software engineer at Argo AI, and I have Asperger’s syndrome, which means I have a form of autism. 

Autism is essentially a difference in thinking. Measuring it and treating it are both difficult, and a cure has eluded us in spite of decades of research (with numerous dead ends). Starting in the late 1980s, the current, modern understanding of autism, along with the idea of neurodiversity, began to emerge. Neurodiversity posits that neurological differences — differences in thinking about and observing our world — are to be recognized and respected like any other human trait. Neurodiversity comprises a range of other conditions, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, and Tourette syndrome, among others in an ever-expanding list. 

The clinical prevalence of autism in our society is somewhere between 1 and 2 percent, or approximately 1 in 54 individuals. Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron Cohen published a study that indicated children with autism can outperform neurotypical children at figuring out how complex mechanical systems work —  which may explain why certain job sectors, like the technology industry, tend to have a much higher representation of employees on the autism spectrum. Sadly, however, this prevalence has not always meant greater understanding of austistic people, or a better utilization of the hidden talents that those on the autism spectrum possess.

Additionally, an employment gap for neurodiverse individuals nationwide exists to the tune of an 85% unemployment rate for college graduates on the autism spectrum. One of the biggest reasons for this is simple: many employers don’t understand how autism works, and they don’t make accommodations for those of us who have it. For many on the autism spectrum, a job interview is a fearsome gauntlet at best, and an insurmountable hurdle at worst. I myself have numerous stories of how past job interviews have gone sideways due to cultural misunderstandings and communication mismatches.

Broadening the Spectrum

Therefore, I’m excited to see Argo partner with Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) Career Development Center because of their unique — and dare I say world-class — push to broaden understanding and effect cultural change around neurodiversity. Argo’s leaders frequently talk about partnerships, about how the mission of self-driving vehicles is not something any one company, organization, or government can accomplish by “riding solo.” This philosophy extends not only to automakers and research institutions, but also to experts that can aid Argo’s development inside of the workplace. A quirky trick of reality is that even though I am on the autistic spectrum, I am not an expert regarding it. I leave that to the therapists and competent People Operations professionals, and this is where JFCS seizes the day. 

Christopher, an Argo AI software engineer, in his home in Pittsburgh.

Over the last few years, JFCS has helped roughly 500 neurodivergent people find work through a program called EmployAble. Argo has taken this program and pivoted it in a new partnership with JFCS that was launched this past September. For neurodivergent job applicants, JFCS provides support, career counseling, resume editing, and ongoing guidance through the job search, interview, hiring and retention processes. For employers, EmployAble trains HR managers on how to adjust the interview process for neurodivergent individuals, and how to accommodate them in the workplace once they’ve been hired. 

According to Sarah Welch, who leads the JFCS Career Development Center, Argo is the first Pittsburgh-area company to take the EmployAble model and build it into the infrastructure of its organization. 

Through this initiative, JFCS connects Argo with pre-screened neurodivergent job candidates and trains Argo managers on creating more inclusive hiring, retention, supervision, and management practices. In addition, JFCS offers specialized training, book clubs, and office hours focused on discussing neurodiversity-related topics so that Argo can continue to build awareness and create a more welcoming environment for all employees. 

Programs such as EmployAble can make a meaningful impact on job candidates and companies alike. For Argo, providing a safe place and interview methodology that supports people from all experiences means we’re able to tap into different skills and talents, which will make our team stronger as a result.  

My Argo Experience

Everyone has a unique story to tell, and I am eternally grateful that Argo has empowered me to share a part of mine to further the cause of advancing understanding of neurodiversity.

A story about how this came to pass is relevant here. I had asked an Argo executive if the company’s concern for diversity also included neurodiversity. This executive’s response was stellar. He first wanted to understand more about neurodiversity and asked if I’d guide him: “Educate me,” he said. Second, he introduced me to others at Argo who had the power to put my talk on the docket for Argo’s Global All-Hands meeting (a video of which you see above). I would be confused if anyone told me they wouldn’t want such behavior in their corporate leaders!

The reception of the All-Hands talk encompassed volumes of flattering and supportive notes from colleagues throughout the company, and I continue to receive them even some time later.

My average day at Argo is never the same twice. Sometimes I’m writing and reviewing documentation; sometimes I’m collaborating on open source projects; sometimes I’m mentoring colleagues or receiving mentorship myself; and last, but not least, I’m often neck-deep in source code trying to turn the improbable into reality.

My development style is often chaos first, filter later. When writing a paper, I’m apt to inscribe the outline last, as a formality to aid the reader rather than as a tool to organize my thoughts — which is the opposite of how we’re taught to write in school! I’m constantly asking “What are all the options, even the crazy ones?,” and then allowing the best ideas to bubble to the surface.

In order to do this, I need to make sure my work environment feels “smooth.” Thus, I devote copious amounts of time to developing my systems, shortcuts, and setting up my desk so that I lack any palpable sensation of tooling blocking me. While Argo holds space for me to do that, I also devote time on process improvements outside of work, as well as crafting a bespoke setup  that makes the work environment more comfortable for me. For instance, I’ve never been satisfied with using my laptop sitting open on my desk (as many colleagues do). It’s always closed and docked, connected to three high-resolution monitors, an ergonomic and mechanical keyboard, and a high-DPI gaming mouse. My managers are eminently supportive of this, so long as I meet all of my performance goals (which I do). This is a perfect example of how Argo already respects neurodiversity: I have the freedom to code the way I like to code.

One thing to know about autism is that every case is unique, and the spectrum is likely more multi-dimensional than the laws of physics themselves. For me, Asperger’s means that I sometimes struggle with social cues such as sending out and processing nonverbal signals. I might not always respond to people in an expected manner. When you ask yourself, “How is this interaction possible?” when you’re speaking to a neurodiverse person, recognize that neurodiversity is probably at play, and know the maxim “everyone is different” is fervently true.

The more that awareness and understanding of neurodiversity increases, the better equipped we all will be to forge a better future together.

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