network illustration

The Value of Thinking Differently: MITRE’s Neurodiversity@Work’s Inclusive Outreach

By Bradley Hague

To solve the toughest challenges, MITRE is embracing the potential of people who literally think differently, by creating pathways to support neurodivergent interns and employees in STEM and cyber.

As a solutions-focused company, MITRE knows thinking differently can be a key benefit to creative solutions. It’s why we’re focused on creating a recruiting pipeline for a neurodivergent workforce for ourselves and for the federal government. Our ongoing efforts pair a growing need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) professionals with a pool of largely untapped talent.

Neurodivergent individuals have differences in their mental and executive functions. Neurodiversity can cover conditions like ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (4.4% of adults); dyslexia (5-17%); dyscalculia (3-6%); dyspraxia (6%); and ASD, autism spectrum disorder (2.24%).

MITRE's Neurodiversity @ Work initiative, known as the Portal Project, brings local, neurodivergent, college-bound high-schoolers to visit our McLean campus. The goal: introduce them to career opportunities they may not have known were available.

“We want these students to see that there are organizations that want them not despite their autism but because of it,” says Teresa Thomas, who leads the Neurodiversity @ Work program.

The Portal Project has already brought 11 neurodivergent interns to work at MITRE, including several who will convert to full-time upon graduation, and one who has already done so.

Diverse Minds Lead to Diverse Solutions

For Thomas, the very fact that these individuals think differently, process differently, and see problems differently is a benefit.

“We’re trying to solve the world’s hardest problems,” Thomas says. “If we all think alike, we all come up with one answer—and that’s not going to be enough. When people’s brains are different, their answers are going to be different. They’re going to try things that wouldn’t have even occurred to anyone else.”

It’s an idea that’s backed up by hard science. Research has shown that autistic individuals can see patterns and solve problems up to 40% faster than their neurotypical peers. It’s why organizations like MITRE, SAP, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and others are starting to see neurodiversity as a competitive advantage.

Closing the Cyber Skills Gap with Neurodivergent Talent

Neurodivergent individuals, especially those with autism, often struggle to find employment. One study found fewer than 16% of individuals with ASD had full-time employment. But this isn’t because they can’t or won’t work.

MITRE's work solving problems for government agencies and organizations means we are uniquely positioned to benefit from neurodivergent employees. People on the autism spectrum often possess skills well-suited to careers such as cybersecurity, analysis, and data management. They tend to see patterns quickly, can be exceptionally detail-oriented, and often have an ability to hyper-focus on elements that other minds might miss.

When people’s brains are different, their answers are going to be different. They try things that wouldn’t have even occurred to anyone else.

Teresa Thomas, program leader, MITRE Neurodiversity@Work initiative

Unfortunately, the very skills that make them excellent employees can make them hard to spot in interviews. They tend to avoid eye contact, minimize their abilities, and struggle with the social engagement of an interview setting.

“The trick is to train interviewers to look beyond some of the social cues to recognize the talent beneath,” says Ann Marie Yoshida, the Portal Project’s program manager.

“They could be the most talented people in the world,” Yoshida says, “but because of the way interview systems are developed, they may be running into social barriers and unconscious biases, with eye-contact, fidgeting, or speech issues like tone or stuttering.”

MITRE, she says, can help make a difference.

The Organizational Advantages of Neurodivergent Colleagues

Like many of us, neurodivergent individuals often work best with precise instruction, patience, and clarity. But while neurotypical peers will adapt to poor management, neurodivergent individuals can act as metaphorical canaries in the coal mine for when things aren’t working.

“One of the advantages of a neurodivergent workforce,” Thomas adds, “is that they make your organization better. They will push your systems to the limit—so your systems better be solid.”

But for Thomas, Yoshida, and others, the payoff is worthwhile.

“The strengths these folks bring may take finding different pathways to access,” Thomas says. “But the light at the end of that tunnel is incandescent.”