Onboarding Neurodiverse Employees

by | Business, Continuing Education

3rd Element has been hiring, training and retaining neurodiverse employees for more than three years.  While we were creating a program to hire, train and retain the neurodiverse, we ended up with a robust onboarding program for ALL employees.  So, whether you have a neurodiverse or neurotypical employee, this article will lay out an onboarding program you an easily implement within your company.

As the mother of an adult child with autism, we’ve been through some trials with schools and every other part of his life.  As school was winding down and he was getting ready to graduate we started looking into job training and work options.  Long story short, there really weren’t any.  So, we figured out a way to incorporate his strongest skills into our business.


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Creating a Culture of Inclusion

We are going to share how we included Neurodiversity in the company culture here at 3rd Element.  We say neurodiversity because we wanted it to include a few other things that can act like Autism, or can be a part of autism.  Those things are:

  • Apraxia of Speech, which is the difficulty coordinating motor movements for speech. You will experience it as long pauses between asking questions and getting an answer.
  • Attention Deficit Disorder which you experience as inattentiveness, impulsivity, or hyperactivity.
  • Dyspraxia is a coordination disorder, which you experience as seeing someone who is inordinately clumsy.
  • Dyslexia is the jumbling of letters, making it difficult to read or write.
  • Dyscalculia, which is dyslexia for numbers specifically
  • Tourette Syndrome is involuntary motor tics, with a vocal component.

All of these disorders share the commonality of different brain wiring or thinking.  Many of these disorders may exist together.   To that end we’ll be addressing the communication, self-expression and support systems that enable the neurodiverse to become a part of your company’s culture and in turn, a great employee.

Neurodiversity in Employment Candidates

We’ve seen a large spike in Neurodiversity with employment candidates in the past year.  Based on the interviews we’ve had it’s up about 40% in central PA in the 20-30 age group.  It may be higher since we can’t ask the candidates.  That spike could be for any number of reasons.  It may be it’s because unemployment is very low so candidates that are neurodiverse are passed over most places.   Maybe it’s that a higher percentage of neurodiverse people gravitate to IT.  It could be that it is randomness.  We don’t know for certain.

What Works and What Doesn’t

We’ve had an autistic employee on staff for 3 years now.  So we can give you some insight into what has worked, what doesn’t.  We’ve had some hilarious, yet bad results with things we’ve tried.  I’ll elaborate more later, but it boils down to the language you use.  And how we designed a hiring and onboarding program for everyone that takes neurodiversity into account.

How do I Know Who Might Be Neurodiverse?

If you’ve worked around people for any length of time, you probably have come across a few.  You may not have known it because they were undiagnosed.  They didn’t disclose it to you.  Maybe you didn’t have the tools to recognize it.

Neurodiversity can range from simple issues concentrating or communicating to being non-verbal and in their own world.  It is a spectrum disorder.  With Autism, it’s said If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.   Everyone and their issues and the severity to which you experience them are different.

I want you to think back to people who you, or your company may have had to terminate over the years for different reasons.

  • There was probably someone who didn’t seem able to follow what seemed like simple verbal directions.
  • Maybe someone that forever looked at anything other than you when they talked, and they mumbled a lot.
  • What about the one that couldn’t function if their schedule changed mid-day.
  • The one who had impulse control issues. Acting before they thought anything though.
  • What about the one that was a serial procrastinator?
  • The forgetful one. They would forget the tools or equipment needed for a job or project that then necessitated multiple site visits.

All these things are hallmarks of a neurodiverse person.

The Positive Aspects of Neurodiversity

The good news is that for each of these bad things we’ve just mentioned, there are great attributes that balance these, especially with some easy to implement supports that benefit all your employees.

Loyalty

SAP, the software group, did a study in their organization and found that they had a 98% autistic employee retention rate.  Average small business retention rate fluctuates from 75 – 90% depending on exact industry.  You can’t pay for type of loyalty you get from a neurodiverse person.

Positive Employee Traits

  • Autistics especially aren’t capable of true deceit – their ability to lie is generally awful, and humorous.  So double edged sword there – if you ask for an opinion, you’re going to get one.
  • If they know they are responsible for something they take it seriously – very seriously.  They will be on time for work, with their materials and doing their job.  Asking questions and dotting I’s and crossing t’s, if you let them know that’s what’s expected.
  • There is a certain innocence that comes with ASD especially and it makes them not judge others or be prejudiced.  They see people and not much else unless they have learned that a person can’t be trusted and that takes a while.
  • Something to consider within your culture.  You know your employees.  If you have a bad apple that generally takes advantage of others – chances are the neurodiverse person will be exploited for their gain.

Efficient Workers

  • Their attention to specific details is unreal.  You want them to look for something, they will until it’s found, or truly can’t be.  This also applies to memory – anything they’ve seen or heard depending on the person is retained for long periods.  That one is good or bad – let’s just say I’m still hearing about something I said 10 years ago.
  • Efficiency is better since they won’t be bothered with consistent socializing, or office gossip.  Socialization can be difficult, most often they avoid it.
  • Able to follow and initiate logic structures – some are great coders.  Some follow directions without wavering.
  • Many Can focus on specific things or tasks for long periods or can hyper focus tuning everything around them out.
  • Repetition for some is comforting and enjoyed.

 

Corporate Social Responsibility

Use the angle of social responsibility to your business advantage.  Align hiring neurodiverse individuals to your business goals by providing jobs to the underemployed but employable and adding diversity to your workforce.

Just Autistic adults currently cost tax payers in the US 250 billion a year in lost productivity and interventions.  Only 12% of those on the spectrum are employed, according to Asperger/Autism Network, leaving 88% unemployed. Use it as a talking point within your community and client base.  It does improve your public image, it can increase your media coverage, we have seen it boost our employee engagement and it attract different clients, employees and potential investors.

Hiring a Neurodiverse Person

In the right company a neurodiverse person can thrive and be an excellent hire.  But you must hire them first, and to do that you may need to rethink how you hire currently.  We aren’t telling you to completely reshape your interview process, it may be effective for your company.  We are going to show you how we do it and what you can add to it to make it more accommodating when you need to be.

Think of it as getting a plan B if you think you’re dealing with someone who is neurodiverse.  Chances are they will interview extremely poorly for a lot of reasons.  It could be anything from never making eye contact to being more fidgety than a meth head.

Interview Plan B

Hopefully you are already looking at more than just who interviews best and are looking for the best candidate for the job.  As I’m sure we can all agree those who interview well aren’t always the best hire.  Even with neurotypical candidates, interviews sometimes go poorly.  We adjusted our interview process to account for some things we thought would help everyone.

Interview Process

When you contact your candidates, give them an outline of what the interview will involve.  We tell them we do a 2-phase process, the 1st interview is a get you know you style interview so come prepared to talk about yourself.  Before we bother with a technical interview we want to make sure they will fit with company culture and are willing to get certifications and continue learning.  If they meet the criteria we are looking for they are invited back for a technical interview.

The 2nd phase is the Technical – we tell them the topics we will be covering to gauge where their skill levels are.  Supply the types of questions you plan to ask ahead of time.  Be sure to remind them that they may have special skills that set them apart from other candidates, so be sure to tell us what they are.  Most candidates do in some fashion.

The 2-phase interview for us is very effective as it allows us to get a second look at everyone, watch for any red flags, address them if we see them and allow the candidate to address any as well.  It goes back to not every candidate interviews well, even if they are the best for the job.  Depending on your candidate, you may need to allow for extra time to form the words necessary for the verbal answers.  It may seem to you like an inordinately long pause to you.

Interview Questions

Be direct and literal with your interview questions.  No plays on words, jokes or idioms.  If they’re on the spectrum, you will have a very confused candidate who will only get more nervous and fidgety if they don’t know what you mean or are confused by the meaning of what you are asking.  Typical candidates are nervous anyway, and it takes the uncertainty out for them as well.

Use examples where possible, a story-based question or scenario.  Again, you’re providing something for reference so there is no mutual mystification.  Try not to ask Yes or no questions.  A neurotypical person will answer and not elaborate or elaborate long enough that you’ll wish you never asked.

Learned Skills

Depending on the position, you can allow them to bring something they’ve done previously to show their ability.  To judge skills required, create a show not tell for candidates’ abilities.  Set something up in the lab for a skills demonstration.  If you know you’re dealing with someone with ASD because it has been disclosed, or you’re working with an agency, offer a day or a few days trial.  This enables you to qualify the candidate on actual skills.

Support Person

Allow them a support person to come to the interview to interpret questions in ways they understand or for helping to clarify answers given by the candidate.  This is especially important if you’re not sure how to rephrase your interview questions.  The support person isn’t there to answer for them, only to rephrase for you or clarify.

Onboarding

When we made changes to our onboarding process we had a significant increase in retention and adoption of company culture.  Our way certainly isn’t the only way, but we have found it to be very effective for all employees.

We do a 90-day onboarding for all employees.  After 2 weeks and 4 weeks we offer the new employees’ money to quit.  $1000 after the first 2 weeks and 2K at 4 weeks.  It costs more than that to train them, so if they’re willing to take the cash it will save you money in the long run.

3rd Element Onboarding

Our onboarding is much the same the first few days for everyone. It doesn’t matter the type of employee that gets hired.  When they are hired, they get a copy of the onboarding so they have it before they start.

We have a standardized program.  The first day is the same for everyone.  I make them breakfast in the office kitchen, we chat, go over all the hiring paperwork and I answer any questions they might have.  It’s a nice way to get to know someone and so far, everyone, while nervous, seemed to really enjoy the personalization.

onboarding schedule

onboarding schedule

The important parts of the onboarding for those who are neuro diverse is that the day is broken down into parts.  They can see what to expect and when.  The sections are clearly defined as to what they will be doing and for how long.  This alleviates some of the anxiety of a new situation, in new surroundings with new people.

Any place we have courses listed, they are a clickable link to take them directly to the course so there is no need to guess where things are, or hunt someone down to ask.

Don’t forget Soft skills

If you haven’t yet, Add soft skills to your onboarding.  These are common sense for some, but not everyone and they are not taught in school.  If you’re getting candidates where your company may be their first job, or one of their first professional jobs, they will help with confidence and interaction.  Communication, listening, connecting with peers and teamwork are the skills we added in.  Again, these skills aren’t just for the neurodiverse candidates.  They’re a great baseline for any employee that has to interact with clients.  Phone skills are another soft skill to add.  Many tend to text more than call, so the professional phone call can be difficult for everyone.

Homework?

We also require homework – daily for the first month of employment.  We also assign a book to them to read. Or if they are Neurodiverse and have trouble with written, an audio book or TED Talks to watch and summarize instead.  They are all the same topic, so it isn’t as if anyone gets something that’s easier, just in the medium that works best.

The homework is simple – a summary of the day.  What did you do, who did you spend it with, what did you learn, and what questions do you have.  We’ve gotten responses that spanned everything from amusing stories to simple summaries.  Everyone is different but it has to be done.  There are no exceptions.  At 3rd Element, we do terminate those who don’t complete homework, book reports, or summaries by the due date.  We all know that an employee generally gives you the best work when they start.  If they aren’t up to doing the requirements of the job then, they won’t be later either.

We set up the first 4 weeks as a daily schedule that look like the ones above.  The second and third months are a little looser depending on job function.  Whatever works for the job function, the type of employee you have, and your business is the right answer for your company.

Catch the second part of this series for more information about Standard Operating Procedures as a support system.  We also explain what employers can do to support all their employees and what accomodations you may want for your staff.

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