Employees at the 14 NCoEs perform duties that are heavily technology-oriented, such as cloud optimization, intelligent automation, and streamlining work processes. The hiring process skips interviews, instead testing candidates with tasks such as coding; some neurodivergent people don’t have typical social and communicative abilities, which would hamper their job interview performance.
“You have a lot of very capable people who communicate differently, who may approach work differently, and therefore they’re not getting the jobs and are not able to retain the jobs, but they’re very capable in performing,” said University of Southern California adjunct associate professor Theresa Haskins, who has done research on employment for adults with autism.
The first NCoE was founded in Philadelphia in 2016, and more have launched throughout the US and other countries, including Canada, the UK, and Costa Rica. The centers employ over 300 people.
Hiren Shukla, the executive who founded the initiative, said EY has saved over 3.5 million hours on work process optimization thanks to the NCoEs. Just a few days after EY closed its offices in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, NCoE employees used programming and data analytics to identify how to best use resources and predict how the pandemic would affect customers’ activities, saving $300 million for the company in the process, he said.
Not ‘Rain Man’
Despite widespread belief, not all neurodivergent people are gifted at math and computer science.
“It’s the ‘Rain Man’ stereotype,” said Katie Rose Guest Pryal, an adjunct law professor at the University of North Carolina and mental disability expert.
While some excel in that kind of work, not all neurodivergent people, including autistic people, possess such skills. Pryal, who is autistic, said this misconception contributes to the high unemployment rate, as neurodivergent people who don’t match the stereotype are excluded from the workforce.
But Shukla said these skills are emphasized since they serve as a foundation for EY’s work, including its core auditing service. He said team members have collaborated with other sectors of the company in areas including cybersecurity analytics and using blockchain to monitor international financial disbursements.
“Essentially, interviews most of the time tend to grade how well you do an interview, not if you’re the best person for the job,” said Haley Moss, an autistic attorney and disability expert. “When you have a different set of social skills and a different way of processing, that can go very wrong, there’s kind of a communication gap almost.”
The NCoEs’ growth is part of a trend of increasing societal visibility of neurodivergent people and disabled people in general.
Unemployment rates vary throughout the neurodivergent population—those with cognitive differences such as ADHD, dyslexia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—but the unemployment rate is especially high for autistic people, said Haskins.
While the Americans With Disabilities Act, in effect for 30 years, addressed people with physical disabilities, workplace accommodations for neurodivergent employees have lagged behind.
“I always feel like disability is the last frontier in diversity. Nobody talked about it for years,” said Leslie Wilson, executive vice president of global workplace initiatives of Disability:IN, a nonprofit resource for business disability inclusion. EY is one of over 40 companies that have partnered with Disability:IN.
The Work Environment
Accommodations are provided for staff, said Shukla, including noise-canceling headphones; seats in a quieter section of the office; multiple computer screens; and closed captioning on video conference calls. Each individual’s needs are assessed to figure out the best way they can perform, he said. Work-from-home accommodations include various messaging platforms for whatever team members want to use, as well as remote career mentoring and supervisor check-ups.
Despite NCoE’s name including the word “center,” staff are integrated into the workplace and not isolated from the rest of the company, Shukla said.
While not neurodivergent, Shukla said his experience as a refugee has inspired him to take up this initiative. As a refugee, he often had a different perspective from others, and originally thought to “just converge and quite down.” But neurodivergent people have inspired him to embrace divergence, motivating him for his work with the NCoEs.
The increasing attention to neurodiversity correlates with the growing understanding that neurodivergent people can be just as adept as neurotypical people.
“Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits,” Wilson said.