Leading the Charge to Increase Neurodiversity in the Federal Workforce

June 2021
Topics: Data Analytics, Cybersecurity, Human Resources Management, Image Processing, Professional Development
MITRE lays the groundwork to help federal agencies attract, hire, and retain an untapped resource—neurodivergent talent.
Two colleagues working together in an office

“People on the spectrum can be an amazing asset to a team—not despite their autism but because of it,” says Teresa Thomas, MITRE’s program lead for neurodiverse talent enablement. “Bringing that diversity of thought is vital to discovering new answers to tough questions.”

Thomas helps us lead the Neurodiverse Federal Workforce Pilot. The initiative addresses two critical unmet needs: government agencies have a severe skills gap in technical fields like cybersecurity and data analysis, and people on the autism spectrum—the largest unemployed disability group—are missing out on professional opportunities.

This July, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) expects to gain four new employees—all currently interns—who will help bridge this gap. They have been at NGA since January learning about things like mapping software and building analysis skills, while contributing to the agency’s geospatial intelligence programs.

The initiative grew out of MITRE’s own Autism at Work program, launched in 2019. We leveraged insights from there and from collaboration with advisory partners such as Microsoft and the University of Maryland, among others. Using our Government Effectiveness Advanced Research Center grand-prize award, we partnered with the non-profit organization Melwood to design a federal internship program.

Interns participate in an initial bootcamp, as well as ongoing professional development and job coaching. There’s also cultural training for host-agency staff.

"We find that it’s just a great opportunity for us to improve and expand employment, [and] career opportunity at NGA especially, bringing in the best talent possible," Michael Hales, NGA’s program manager for the pilot, told Federal Times.

Currently all four interns are on track to hire into a permanent position when the pilot ends. But they’re already helping NGA “deliver world-class geospatial intelligence that provides a decisive advantage to policymakers, warfighters, intelligence professionals and first responders.”

The interns bring unique approaches and ways of thinking to some very complex problems.

“At the moment we’re working on some challenging and exciting campaigns, and we’re actually making a real difference,” says Morgan, one of the interns.

“I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” she adds. “And it’s been great to discover skills I didn’t realize I had.”

As the initial pilot wraps up, MITRE is collaborating with another federal agency to potentially begin the next program in the near future.

Removing the Edge of Fear

Word of the program’s success is spreading—to the agencies that would benefit from neurodivergent talent and to the students with an interest and aptitude for such work.

In March, MITRE, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency convened a federal information exchange meeting. The event drew 130 government employees interested in learning about how to create a neurodiverse workforce program.

And in April, the National Institute of Standards and Technology 2021 Federal Cybersecurity Workforce Summit spotlighted the pilot’s progress to a broader audience “working first-hand on initiatives geared toward attracting and strengthening vital cybersecurity talent.”

MITRE also hosted a science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—outreach event in April for autistic students in select Maryland and Virginia high schools. Carlos Torre, graduate of our Autism at Work program and one of our Cyber New Professionals, shared his experiences.

“When MITRE presented at my college about the work they do, I thought, ‘What’s cooler than being involved with new science and technology?’

“I get the opportunity to work on cutting-edge stuff here. And it’s exciting to engage in things that will genuinely help people.”

Moving forward, MITRE will draw on experience from our internal program and the federal pilots to create a federal version of the Autism @ Work Playbook. Government agencies can use this to learn to recruit, hire, and develop neurodivergent employees.

The broader goal? Greater neurodiversity in the workforce—both in the public and private sectors—with all types of people working together to solve big problems.

“When you can point to a success story like this and provide a step-by-step playbook of how to do it, it can help take the edge of fear off trying something new,” Thomas says. “More organizations can see first-hand the incredible talent and passion people on the spectrum offer.”

—by Denise Schiavone

Federal agencies interested in learning more can contact neurodiversity@mitre.org.

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