HENDERSON: Thinking outside the neurotypical hiring box

Tom Henderson
October 30, 2010
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LeCrone mugThere’s a screening process we often use in the human resources process that’s meant to identify prospective candidates. It needs re-thinking.

In our quest to recruit hires, we imagine/define the work, then develop a profile or criteria that are normal for that work. The hiring process is expensive, of course, as is the overall cost of either replacing people or filling new spots.

There’s time pressure. Get someone in that spot quickly (maybe before budget is lost). Processes are spawned to advertise the spot(s), get applications and resumes, then comb through them to find individuals who fit the profile. There’s a bell curve in that profile. Some candidates are simply outside the profile and have blindly sent their responses in the vague hope that numbers exceed qualification targeting. Filtration becomes almost obsessive.

This works both ways.

Hidden in our hiring logic is something that seeks what Lisa Daxer, a student at Wright State University, calls “neurotypical” candidates. Lisa, a biomedicine student at Wright State who was profiled on National Public Radio, isn’t in the bell curve, and she knows it. She has autism spectral disorder. She writes a blog, and tells of her struggle to understand social cues, like facial expressions. I understand where she comes from, as I have a brother who’s similar: He’s autistic and is often completely socially clueless.

Lisa’s made the leap to try to live in our alien world. Her adaptations are likely to allow her to use her skills (autistic individuals often make brilliant engineers, chemists and accountants) for not only her own success but her employer’s, too. One day, she’s going to succeed and likely make some employer very happy.

Individuals with dyslexia also might be at the edge of the neurotypical bell curve. Dyslexia is a language learning disorder. Dyslexics often make rotten spellers and perhaps difficult readers; this is a byproduct of a typically larger right brain, which, like many autistic brains, does things differently. People mistakenly call dyslexics stupid during their early learning years.

Dyslexics have, because of their incredible right brains, much to offer. Famous examples include Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Cher. My daughter, who’s moderately dyslexic, is in a doctoral program at Rochester Institute of Technology in color theory. This doctorate follows degrees in geology and bassoon performance. Her tenacity is as wide as her vision. In spite of these accomplishments, weak spelling would perhaps trip the filters.

Remediating disabilities and learning disorders requires flexibility. The range of functionality in autistic individuals to a particular daily work life can vary. Highly functioning individuals may require only understanding that, generally, autism means an individual may not be able to read social cues, or may need direct, clear, concise direction—and benefit from playing these back to ensure understanding.

In some cases, individuals with autism and learning disorders can get training or adaptation assistance from various vocational rehabilitation agencies to help adapt to a specific career. Assistance comes in the form of potential trainers and job counselors, and occasionally, initial subsidy during the adaptation process.

The accommodations made are similar to those with mobility challenges, but involve integrating a new personality type into a team. Like those with other challenges, people with learning disorders and non-neurotypical brains can achieve astounding results. Widen your filters and get the benefits.

Job-position adaptation for dyslexics is often simpler. Dyslexics are often poor spellers. Spell checkers are mandatory. Look at content rather than Webster’s. Reinforce double-checking numeric entries, as dyslexics often swap numbers and letters unwittingly. You can introduce procedural quality-of-entry checks that improve accuracy when necessary. Strangely, one of my best editors was dyslexic and covered it up wonderfully.

The benefits to flexibility and adaptation are adding employees with occasionally extraordinary skills who can make teams stronger (if the team can copy your desired flexibility) and more productive. And you’re putting good people to work, long term, who often become fiercely loyal employees.•


Henderson is managing director of ExtremeLabs Inc., a Bloomington computer analysis firm.



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