Unlocking New Talent through MITRE’s Autism at Work Initiative

April 2020
Topics: Cybersecurity, Human Resources Management
A new MITRE initiative is providing support to current and prospective employees on the autism spectrum to tap into a talented—but underutilized—workforce.
Man sitting in chair working on laptop

Keeping the nation's information and critical systems secure requires diverse perspectives and deep skills. It requires concentration and analytical thinking to see patterns and understand adversary behaviors. Individuals on the autism spectrum often have these skills naturally but are underrepresented in the cybersecurity field. MITRE is looking to change that.

MITRE's Autism at Work initiative began as a pilot project in 2019. The project seeks to recruit, hire, and develop neurodivergent employees—a population with atypical neurological development, including individuals with autism, ADHD, and dyslexia—for cybersecurity positions.

Working with a group of partners and advisors whose perspectives are important in shaping our national social landscape, including SAP, Specialisterne, the Autism at Work Employer Roundtable, the University of Maryland, and Rochester Institute of Technology, we're demonstrating that hiring a neurodiverse talent benefits the individual, our teams, and the organization.

"Bringing new perspectives and skills into our talent community is essential in shaping our inclusive culture and delivering on our mission," says Stephanie Turner, vice president of inclusion, diversity, and social innovation. "We understand the impact inclusion has in unifying teams and creating a space for innovative solutions."

Training for Impact

MITRE's Autism at Work program, called the Portal Project, provides training not only to employees on the autism spectrum, but also co-workers and managers. By modifying the onboarding and support process for employees on the spectrum and educating their colleagues, we can improve communication and encourage creative perspectives. This enhanced perspective will also benefit current employees, including those on the spectrum.

“We're not creating special jobs, we're filling current gaps with real talent," says Teresa Thomas, program lead, neurodiverse talent enablement. "It's about getting great employees to do work we need done."

This pilot project adds to our diverse and exceptional workforce. Within the last eight months, four college co-op students on the autism spectrum have been embedded along full-time MITRE staff working on some of the most critical cybersecurity challenges the nation faces. These interns have been given tasks essential to MITRE's sponsors and have already made important contributions.

For the students, a MITRE internship offers hands-on work experience they may not have been able to secure through traditional channels.

"Having a job on a resume is much more reassuring to an employer than just taking a leap of faith on someone who hasn't had an office job before," says Seth Arnold, a co-op student last fall.

Beyond formal training, co-workers of Portal Project co-ops say they gained a better sense of understanding by working alongside interns on the autism spectrum.

Seth Arnold, a co-op student who participated last fall in MITRE's Portal Project

Changing the Conversation

Adults on the autism spectrum are widely excluded from the workforce because many organizations lack the infrastructure and training to attract, retain, and grow this uniquely talented population. With the right training for job candidates, hiring managers, and colleagues, this population is a key to strengthening the tech workforce.

The Portal Project is informing MITRE's ongoing pilot program with a federal agency, which won a Grand Prize in the GEAR Center Challenge. Working with the Office of Management and Budget, MITRE will launch a neurodiversity hiring program with a federal agency. The Neurodiverse Federal Workforce pilot aims to help address the need for increased levels of federal cybersecurity talent within U.S. federal agencies.

By showing how these neurodiversity programs can help in the nonprofit and government sectors, MITRE can help set a new standard for how autistic and other neurodivergent employees are recruited, hired, and supported.

“We're doing this to be an example to our sponsors, to make sure this is done right, and to change the conversation around neurodiverse hiring," Thomas says.

—by Jordan Graham

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