Obstacles to hiring and clearing people with autism exclude qualified candidates and inhibit diversity goals.
By Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg and Alison Berman
Each year the intelligence community (IC) loses thousands of talented workers to better-paid private sector jobs and often to an onerous security clearance process. Intelligence agencies and the private sector contractors that support them must leverage new talent pools, and one key group that could help fill this gap is the neurodiverse community.
The term “neurodiverse” refers to individuals with neurodevelopmental differences, including autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. In the United States, 85% of autistic adults and nine out of ten college graduates on the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed — often because they are not provided with the right resources to succeed. Pilot programs undertaken at private companies have demonstrated that people on the autism spectrum not only function well in the workplace but often outperform their colleagues. Six months after launching an “Autism at Work” initiative, JP Morgan Chase found that the firm’s neurodiverse team members worked 48% faster and were up to 92% more productive than their neurotypical counterparts.
Neurodiverse individuals’ skills are particularly well suited to intelligence work. Individuals on the autism spectrum often display exceptional talent in pattern recognition, processing complex information, visual-spatial tasks, attention to detail, and the ability to sustain focus for long periods of time – skills that are highly valued among intelligence analysts. Neurodiverse employees make rational decisions more consistently than neurotypical people and are less prone to cognitive bias.
Many organizations simply do not recruit neurodiverse candidates. According to the IC’s 2020 Annual Demographic Report, only 1.3 percent of applicants at intelligence agencies in 2020 reported having disabilities of any type.
Once in the intelligence workforce, neurodiverse employees find little support to help them succeed. Job descriptions, promotion criteria, and mentoring networks are not structured to accommodate atypical behavior. While several IC agencies have affinity groups to advocate for employees who have physical, rather than intellectual, challenges, agencies have little experience providing accommodations to neurodiverse staff.
One of the largest obstacles to recruiting neurodiverse workers is ambiguity surrounding security clearances. Agencies and contractors are hesitant to hire someone who may not make it through the clearance process, and many applicants find the requirements daunting.
Neurodiverse candidates face three main challenges when pursuing security clearances. First, the large amount of paperwork can be overwhelming, and the lack of context for many questions can be confusing. Second, background investigators are trained to be suspicious of behavioral traits that many neurodiverse people exhibit, such as fidgeting, not making eye contact, asking for clarifications, answering questions literally, and pausing before answering questions. Finally, for the same reasons, atypical behavior creates obstacles to passing polygraph exams; autistic job candidates can have different physiological responses to personal questions, which can lead to atypical – and disqualifying – polygraph results.
Intelligence agencies and the contractors that support them can take several steps to draw on the unique talents of neurodiverse individuals and ensure that the national security workforce reflects the skills, experiences, and backgrounds of the American people.
First, the public, private and academic sectors should make an effort to recruit neurodiverse people into roles for which they are suited. In June 2020, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency launched a pilot program to recruit neurodiverse interns as geospatial and imagery analysts, collaborating with MITRE, a non-profit R&D company, and Melwood, a community service organization. This public-private initiative enabled the agency to shepherd candidates through the hiring process and place them in appropriate jobs. A growing number of post-secondary educational programs have programs to prepare neurodiverse students for professional careers, including Landmark College, CIP Worldwide, George Mason University, and Mercyhurst University, which even has undergraduate and graduate programs in intelligence studies. Intelligence agencies and contractors could partner with such schools to recruit neurodiverse students with national security skills and interests.
Second, agencies must ensure equitable treatment for neurodiverse individuals in hiring and security clearance processes. Application forms should enable candidates to note that they are neurodiverse, which should trigger agencies to provide tailored information about the process and trained staff to provide support. Agencies should train interviewers and polygraphers to work with neurodiverse applicants, so investigations focus on security-relevant information rather than atypical behavior. The IC should consider funding research to determine whether a polygraph is even an effective screening tool for neurodiverse applicants.
Third, organizations should create a more inclusive work environment for neurodiverse employees. An employee resource group (ERG), for example, could advocate for both significant concerns, like an equitable promotion process, and minor issues that affect people on the spectrum, like workplace noise and lighting. A dedicated ERG could help neurodiverse staff members find mentors, secure training, and integrate effectively into their organizations.
Fourth, agencies and contractors should share data and best practices to improve hiring and training programs. The IC could publish a recruiting, hiring, and career development guide similar to the federally focused Autism at Work Playbook being developed by MITRE and the University of Washington in partnership with JP Morgan Chase, EY, Microsoft, and SAP. Such an IC-specific roadmap would provide agencies with proven techniques for successfully engaging neurodiverse candidates and employees.
To promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the Intelligence Community, government and industry leaders should consider providing opportunities to a wide range of Americans, including those with neurodevelopmental differences. Recruiting members of the neurodiverse community would fill critical national security jobs with people who possess unique skills and viewpoints – and ensure that this vital workforce represents the nation.
Suzanne Wilson Heckenberg is President of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance (INSA), a non-profit association dedicated to government-industry collaboration in the Intelligence Community, and of INSA’s Foundation. Alison Berman, a graduate student at Columbia University, is an intern at INSA.