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Why and How Public Agencies Should Hire Neurodivergent Pros

As technology becomes more complex, and hiring among public agencies often becomes more challenging, some experts are encouraging more recruitment of neurodivergent workers. Here’s how to get it done.

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As public agencies try to replace retiring tech workers while also hiring pros who can handle cybersecurity and other challenges, they might be overlooking a rich talent pool: neurodivergent candidates.

People who have autism, ADHD, dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other conditions that diverge from the typical often are passed over or ignored by hiring managers. That in turn robs agencies of applicants with high levels of analytical, digital and other skills increasingly prized by state and local governments, according to experts who study the matter.

The unemployment rate for neurodivergent adults remains obscenely high — up to 40 percent, according to one estimate, with especially high levels for those with autism.

Recently, though, banks, tech firms, commerce operators and other enterprises have boosted their own efforts at recruiting and retaining those workers. They are generally seen as hardworking, self-starting, detail-orientated and able to handle the math, statistics, visual thinking and tech know-how vital to so many 21st-century jobs.

Now governments are starting to follow suit.

“Progress is happening,” Anthony Pacilio, vice president of neurodiverse solutions at technology services firm CAI, told Government Technology.


CAI works in the public and private sectors and strongly encourages the hiring of neurodivergent workers in tech — work that reflects the broader effort to bring more diversity to government and private industry.

Pacilio said that while neurodivergent hiring rates are rising more quickly outside government, the public sector is also improving. Reasons include agencies offering remote and office working environments that are more accessible than in the past, and relying more on “hands-on evaluations” than traditional job interviews.

Inclusive language in job descriptions also matters.

“Typical job postings can be [so] overly detailed and rigid that it discourages a qualified neurodivergent candidate due to the literal nature of the posting’s language,” Pacilio said. “Saying a certain number of years is required with ‘excellent’ interpersonal communication could sound like a deal-breaker even though that candidate could easily perform the job’s function.”

Pacilio reports retention rates of up to 94 percent within the first year of employment for neurodivergent workers, assuming employers offer the right environment.

“The future is bright over the next few years as long as we build the supportive infrastructure from which each individual can succeed and bring their best selves to work,” he said.

That’s vital because research shows that most neurodivergent workers want to quit their jobs because they don’t think employers are supporting them. Support can come in a variety of ways, depending on the neurodivergent condition: Letting some professionals — such as people whose ADHD makes them night owls — work at different hours could help with retention.


The federal government offers an emerging example for how to boost the hiring and retention of neurodivergent professionals. With an estimated 20 percent of U.S. adults thought to have a neurodivergent condition, such efforts offer lessons that could help other agencies push ahead with tech and workforce development.

The Neurodiverse Federal Workforce Pilot Program recently set out to design a “best practices” playbook for other federal agencies to follow. Early work includes a six-month internship with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a highly technical national security operation. Microsoft, SAP and universities supported the pilot.

“Many individuals on the autism spectrum have skills that are desperately needed at the federal level for roles like cybersecurity and data management, roles that are some of the most crucial to national security,” reads a description of the pilot’s goals.

The pilot included not only recruitment, but training and development, coaching and support, the management of “stressors” that can mar professional progress for neurodivergent workers and “building up a natural system of supports that will enable success beyond the six-month internship.”

The group plans to release the playbook later this year.


Early best practices appear to include heightened awareness of what neurodivergence is among employers and coworkers. Indeed, such understanding and workplace support seems to go a long way toward ensuring top job performance and retention, according to other experts and neurodivergent workers.

“Retention is boosted by simply understanding and working with the neurodivergent employee,” James Hudgins, senior associate with the Neurodiversity Center of Excellence at consulting firm EY, said in an email interview. “Ask how they process information best, how they learn, how they prefer to communicate. Little adjustments like that will have huge impacts on feeling respected, listened to and valued.”


EY is among the high-profile organizations pushing government to hire neurodivergent talent.

Such hiring could help state and local agencies replace retirees and reduce one-on-one competition with private tech companies for the best talent, at least according to Hiren Shukla, the founder of EY Global's Neuro-Diverse Centers of Excellence.

That’s because, he said, every state and every region likely has a large, untapped pool of neurodivergent adults who, at the least, are underemployed. But it won’t be easy, he said.

“My fear is that the only way to get to a scalable model is by being very deliberate and intentional,” he said. “That is the gap I see now.”

But things are changing as conferences and roundtables include more sessions on neurodivergent employment, and as officials work to make public agencies more diverse and better able to handle advances in technology, said Pacilio of CAI.

“The potential to expand neurodiversity hiring across the public sector is ready to take off,” he said. “We have qualified individuals ready to work at the national, state and local levels of government and we’re already seeing success.”
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.