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The Talents of the Neurodiverse

Arguments over the value of autism could affect our view of the purpose of business.

The phrase developmentally disabled is often followed by the word child, as if conditions like autism magically evaporate after adolescence. But people with those conditions are aging as inevitably as the rest of us. I am close to a 58-year-old autistic man. Ed lives in his own apartment, runs his life as he wants, and is currently between jobs. Like many individuals with disabilities looking for employment, he is registered with an agency (in this case, Job Path of New York) that doesn’t just place clients, but helps them become qualified for work and coaches them in dealing with the stresses of the workplace. This makes a huge difference. Yet Ed’s online job profile does not mention any type of support (or the tax breaks available to some companies that hire people with disabilities). He’s too proud. Instead, he writes, as any of us might, “I am intelligent, hard working, can do a lot for your company.” 

Since the openly autistic animal behavior expert Temple Grandin became famous, attitudes about autism have shifted. Its mild form, Asperger’s syndrome, is increasingly seen as “neurodiversity”: not an impairment, but a flavor of human capability that, when mixed into the stew of a workplace environment, can help companies improve. In his recently published book Zero to One, Paypal cofounder Peter Thiel credits the success of Internet startups in part to the Aspergian mind-set of their leaders: ill-attuned to social cues, obsessive, energetic, and single-minded. With a number of celebrities and historical figures (Bill Gates, Peter Sellers, Thomas Jefferson) allegedly on the autism spectrum, there’s a real risk, as New York magazine journalist Benjamin Wallace pointed out in May 2014, that the autism label could just become a way of excusing one’s own anti-social and brusque behavior.

But the most prevalent form of autism is a whole other matter. It’s not trendy or ennobling; it isolates people and makes it hard for them to function. There are always ways to improve, and autistic people can often live on their own as adults. Yet most of them never fully escape dependence on their families, or others. Applauding them as savant-entrepreneurs won’t help them succeed.

One emerging approach seems to work for adults with developmental disabilities—and for the companies that hire them. Northwest Center, an entrepreneurial community-based agency headquartered in Seattle, Wash., has been employing, placing, and training people with developmental disabilities since 1965. It also runs its own businesses: an electronics manufacturing firm, making inductors and transformers for use in aircraft, medical devices, and solar panels; and a hygienically certified commercial laundry business serving dozens of hotels and hospitals. Both the manufacturing firm and hospital are staffed by people of all abilities, including some with autism and other developmental disabilities, all working together in an integrated workforce. 

Northwest Center deploys lean production techniques and self-managing teams, where the point is to develop collective intelligence— making the most of people’s contributions together instead of setting them apart or having them compete with one another. People with disabilities can thrive and contribute in that kind of work environment. Northwest Center CEO Tom Everill talks about the holiday season of 2013, when they set up a specialized assembly line, using Six Sigma principles, to put together 1.1 million gift packs for Starbucks within a few weeks. These were intricate productions: foil-wrapped coffee samples in burlap bags tucked into wooden gift boxes.

“At the end of the assembly line was just one employee,” Everill told me. “His name is Chance. He would probably not have gotten hired anywhere else, because of his disability. But he has an obsession for perfection. He did the 12-step quality control inspection on all 1.1 million units, and we didn’t get a single return.”

To Everill, the biggest disability faced by people like Chance (and Ed and many others) is the conventional assumption about them—that they are broken and have little to offer. “Not so long ago,” he says, “We felt we had to convince prospective employers that it was their moral obligation to hire someone with a learning disability. Those assumptions created opaque filters that hurt us. So instead, we started to examine our own way of thinking—to ask ourselves, ‘What if people have autism or Down syndrome for a reason? What if it’s OK for them to be the way they are?’”

The biggest disability is the assumption that people are broken and have nothing to offer. 

It turns out, he says, that the qualities of people with developmental disabilities—improved productivity, obsession with quality, low absenteeism, loving their job—are qualities most employers seek desperately. “The biggest obstacle is their own assumptions,” Everill says. “Once they make the decision to hire [our people], they find there is much less they need to do differently than they thought.” Instead, he says, “A typical employer comes back a year later and says, ‘We knew the job would benefit the person you sent us. We didn’t understand how much it would benefit us as well.’”

Taking on employees like Ed or Chance means making a commitment to them that is more like a leap of faith—a willingness to connect to people who have rarely, if ever, heard before that they have something special to offer. This connection, like all employment, has a powerful effect that goes beyond the paycheck. Chance, for instance, asked to have his name used in this article, so he can share the story with his family and friends. He sees himself as being part of a movement of social change.

In the end, this is not just a disabilities issue. The same systems and structures that foster connection with people on the autistic spectrum turn out to be the best kind of management systems for the rest of us, including the firm’s top leadership. If your company can effectively manage the talents of the neurodiverse, that’s an indicator of general management effectiveness. Too bad so many of us overlook that indicator when judging the potential of a company.

Art Kleiner

Art Kleiner was formerly editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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