Intelligence: Disrupting a Monoculture by Recruiting Autistic Talent

Executive Summary

The United States Intelligence Community (IC) will fall behind its adversaries unless it can disrupt a monoculture that lacks imagination. Actively recruiting neurodiverse autistic talent to work alongside neurotypicals offers much promise for imagination. Despite a lack of social skills which contributes to an 80% unemployment rate, autistic workers provide a perspective that excels at solving difficult problems. Leading technology companies are now having great success with autistic employees, but there is currently no active program to recruit the neurodiverse into the IC.

 

 

Having both sworn an oath to the United States, it’s likely you and I are very much the same. How we grew up, where we went to school, and with whom we’ve associated have all influenced our way of thinking. Our collective past was probably quite positive, and this contributed to us having received a national security clearance and working in the Intelligence Community (IC). Despite an affirmative history, we share a large problem. We think the same way.

Thinking the same way, or group think, perpetuates a monoculture within an organization which leads to its own demise. Conventional thinking in a monoculture is often referred to as neurotypical thinking. Neurotypical individuals often assume that their experience of the world is either the only one or the only correct one.[i] This lack of cognitive perspective greatly inhibits imagination.

A lack of imagination within the IC was cited as the greatest failure in the 9/11 Commission Report. It further stated that “imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.”[ii] It’s this same lack of imagination that has the IC beginning to fall behind its adversaries in Artificial Intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and other emerging technologies.  To disrupt a monoculture of neurotypical thinking that lacks imagination, the IC must actively recruit neurodiverse talent from the autistic community.

It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing the exercise of imagination.[iii]

Autistic individuals are often referred to as neurodiverse. They have a perspective much different than we neurotypical thinkers, with some being quite gifted with savant type capabilities. Men and women on the autism spectrum often lack common social graces, yet their attention to detail, pattern recognition skills, and propensity to excel in careers like data science far exceed neurotypicals.

The Top 10 Positive Traits of Autistic People [iv]

  1. Autistic People Rarely Lie
  2. People on the Autism Spectrum Live in the Moment
  3. People With Autism Rarely Judge Others
  4. Autistic People Are Passionate
  5. People With Autism Are Not Tied to Social Expectations
  6. People With Autism Have Terrific Memories
  7. Autistic People Are Less Materialistic
  8. Autistic People Play Fewer Head Games
  9. Autistic People Have Fewer Hidden Agendas
  10. People With Autism Open Doors for Neurotypicals

Microsoft understands autistic talent and established a hiring program in 2015 to better identify candidates. According to Chief Accessibility Officer, Jenny Lay-Flurrie, “There really is a lot of data on the table that said we were missing out. We were missing out on an opportunity to bring talent in with autism.” Lay-Flurrie believes hiring autistic workers at is more than just providing equal opportunity for those with disabilities. She sees hiring neurodiverse employees as a business imperative for Microsoft.[v]

After an unconventional interview process, autistic employees at Microsoft work in small teams with a trained coach. The coach ensures reasonable accommodations and communicates empathetically with his team. One such coach, Brent Truell, states “When we are faced with really complicated problems, the solutions to those aren’t always simple.” Now Truell is always impressed by the new insights and creative solutions his team brings forward.[vi]

Our autistic employees achieve, on average, 48% to 140% more work than their typical colleagues,” says James Mahoney, executive director and head of Autism at Work at Chase. “They are highly focused and less distracted by social interactions. There’s talent here that nobody’s going after.”[vii]

The ultimate hack for a team of autistic Silicon Valley programs may be cracking the genetic code that makes them so good at what they do. [viii]

IC agencies of the federal government currently make reasonable accommodations for all employees with special needs. The Wayfinders program “welcomes all Agency employees” and they “advise on matters concerning equal opportunity” to include seeking to “improve recruitment and hiring of qualified people with disabilities” and “the neurodiverse.” However, Wayfinders does not actively recruit autistic talent or provide trained coaches.

Setting direction for the next four years, the 2019 National Intelligence Strategy (NIS) recognizes the requirement to disrupt or fall behind. “We face significant changes in the domestic and global environment; we must be ready to meet 21st century challenges and to recognize emerging threats and opportunities. To navigate today’s turbulent and complex strategic environment, we must do things differently.”[ix]

Actively recruiting autistic talent into the IC would indeed be different, but will also come with challenges and costs. Beyond reasonable accommodations, an agency with autistic workers will also require trained and skilled coaches. These coaches will need to be empathetic communicators to help integrate the neurodiverse to work well with neurotypicals. Correspondingly, the neurotypical workforce will require a modicum of training to better understand the communication impediments often associated with the neurodiverse. Eventually, however, there will be great synergy as those with autism will open doors of imagination for the neurotypicals.

“The IC must also foster unconventional thinking and experimentation that address new, better ways of accomplishing the IC’s mission, especially those approaches that emphasize acceleration, simplicity, and efficiency without sacrificing quality and outcomes. These approaches should increase insight, knowledge, and speed through artificial intelligence, automation, and augmentation, where applicable. To achieve this, IC leaders must be prepared to boldly accept calculated risks to attain high-value results, and accept the fact that initial failures may precede a successful outcome.”[x]

Recruiting autistic workers into the IC provides a vision for the US to gain a strategic advantage over great power competitors like Russia and China. In the US, an appropriate understanding of the autism spectrum started in the 1940s. In Russia, however, autism is often blamed on poor parenting, while the “Chinese scientific community and government are just coming to grips with it.”[xi] Empowering the autistic community with accommodations for meaningful work in the IC further exemplifies America’s values as a nation that embraces all its citizens.

With “Data Scientist” listed as the most promising job in 2019, it’s no wonder the IC has difficulty recruiting this talent away from higher paying private sector firms.[xii] However, as a majority of employers lack an understanding of the amazing intelligence of the neurodiverse, it is estimated that 80% of people with autism still go unemployed, even though many are highly educated and eager to work. This presents a large talent pool from which the IC could recruit to perform as data scientists.

To meet the demand for talent with an overwhelming supply of autistic workers, Ford Motor Company, DXC Technology, EY, Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, and SAP formed the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable. Jose Velasco, the Vice President of Product Management at SAP says they started hiring autistic workers in 2013 with four people as a pilot project. He states, “now we’re hiring people on the spectrum in 10 countries.”[xiii]

"I love this perch atop the Community because from my vantage point there are no boundaries standing in the way of delivering on our imagination—only partnership and work." [xiv] – Sue Gordon

There is little standing in the way of recruiting autistic talent into the IC, but it will require work and partnership. I propose that ODNI designate an Autism Champion to engage with “Autism at Work” and begin the dialogue on developing an on-boarding path for autistic talent. Starting with a manageable pilot program with metrics of success will come at little cost.  It will require approval from leadership, and the collaboration from multiple directorates and offices. Actively recruiting the neurodiverse as disruptors of an IC monoculture is simply a matter of choice. We can choose to disrupt or fall behind.


 

[i] (U) Erik Engdahl.  “What is Neurotypical,” Institute For the Study of the Neurologically Typical, December 25, 2010.  http://erikengdahl.se/autism/isnt.

[ii] (U) National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.  The 9/11 Commission Report.  July 22, 2004.  Washington, DC.

[iii] (U) National Commission on Terrorist Attacks.

[iv] (U) Lisa Jo Rudy  “Top 10 Positive Traits of Autistic People,”  Very Well Health.  June 21, 2019.  https://www.verywellhealth.com/top-terrific-traits-of-autistic-people-260321.

[v] (U) CBS News.  “The Growing Acceptance of Autism in the Workplace,” Sunday Morning, February 11, 2018.  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-growing-acceptance-of-autism-in-the-workplace/#.

[vi] (U) CBS News.

[vii] (U) Dinah Eng.  “Where Autistic Workers Thrive,” Fortune, June 24, 2018.  https://fortune.com/2018/06/24/where-autistic-workers-thrive/

[viii] (U) Steve Silberman.  “NeuroTribes:  The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” Penguin Random House, 2015.  New York.

[ix] (U) Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “2019 National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America,” https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/National_Intelligence_Strategy_2019.pdf.

[x] (U) ODNI.

[xi] (U) Nick Compton. “Teacher Turned Journalist Reports on Autism in China,” Autism Speaks, September 5, 2018. https://www.autismspeaks.org/life-spectrum/teacher-turned-journalist-reports-autism-china

[xii] (U) Bob Violino.  “6 Ways to Deal with the Great Data Scientist Shortage,”  Chief Information Officer, May 22, 2019.  https://www.cio.com/article/3397137/6-ways-to-deal-with-the-great-data-scientist-shortage.html

[xiii] (U) Dinah Eng.

[xiv] (U) Sue Gordon.  Interview with the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, Women’s History Month Spotlight, March 19, 2019.  Washington, DC.

 

 

Written by Geoff Weber

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