Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Here’s how to make the workplace better for neurodivergent employees (and everyone, really)

It's Autism Acceptance Month. CAI Neurodiverse Solutions VP Anthony Pacilio on what support looks like, for a more empathetic workplace overall.

Working from home and noise-cancelling headphones are among the workplace accommodations that can help retain neurodiverse talent.

(Photo Ivan Samkov from Pexels)

Anthony Pacilio’s journey to VP of CAI Neurodiverse Solutions has been fueled, in part, by finger puppets.

Pacilio, who is neurodivergent himself, came to the workforce initiative developed by Allentown, Pennsylvania-based global technology services firm CAI from JPMorgan Chase, where he was its previous VP and global head of Autism at Work.

The work includes helping Fortune 1000 clients across the country build diversity and inclusion employment programs while providing resources for neurodivergent members of the workforce. His passion for it was sparked by a friend who, years ago, missed out on career opportunities despite his skills.

“He was on the spectrum, and nobody really understood him,” Pacilio said. “He got bullied because his stimming mechanism was that he played with finger puppets. He was brilliant, and no one let him be brilliant. He was a wonderful graphic designer. He would sit in his room, get on his computer and just build these amazing things.”

If CAI Neurodiverse Solutions had existed 25 years ago, his friend would have potentially been in a better place to grow a meaningful career. The organization helps neurodivergent teens and adults — people with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, anxiety disorders, dyslexia, OCD and other neurological differences — gain employment in industries such as tech, healthcare, finance and manufacturing.

As part of Autism Acceptance Month, Technical.ly asked Pacilio some questions about creating neurodiverse workplaces, and how neurodivergent people can get support. (When you’re done, be sure to read our deep dive on how workplaces can be more inclusive to neurodivergent people.)

###

Technical.ly: You talked about your friend’s isolation, creating designs in his room. How do you find talent on the spectrum like that, who are at risk of falling through the cracks?

Advertisement

Pacilio: We start with secondary school, when somebody sees that brilliance in whatever it may be, it might be art, gaming, coding, could be whatever. [There are programs nationally] like the University of Delaware Spectrum Scholars Program. We need to go in before the person ever gets out of high school. Things stop after the age of 18.

You can call it a pipeline, but it needs to be the ladder to the next level. It’s going to take a little bit, we’re probably really 10 years into trying to get this movement going, and you’ll see other large firms across the globe doing neurodiversity programs as well. But finding that talent and then harnessing that talent and then making it so that they can get a job and have a meaningful career and longevity career mobility, that’s got to be the first.

“Company culture fit” is often something potential employees are judged by in interviews. Is that a roadblock for some people?

HR organizations today, I know they’re getting a little better, but they don’t know how to interview somebody who’s neurodiverse or thinks differently. You’re always looking for somebody who’s looking you in the eyeballs across the Zoom. If it’s in person, you’re looking for somebody that’s got a really strong hand shake. When you do interviews, you’re not picking out the talents and the skill sets of the individual so much as you’re looking at something that is just on the outside.

And then when you hire that individual and you’re talking about cultural integration, it needs to happen the reverse way: The company doesn’t need to push their culture on the person. That person’s going to drive the culture making your organization empathetic. If they don’t have an employee resource group, maybe that gets started. There’s a lot of different things that come into play once you start placing people who think differently in your workforce.

Anthony Pacilio headshot

Anthony Pacilio. (Courtesy photo)

In cases where an applicant needs needs an accommodation, or maybe it’s a situation where the well-qualified applicant isn’t going to make eye contact during the interview as the interviewer would expect, is the employer prepared in advance?

Companies who have an infrastructure program built in should understand already. Companies who are hiring folks like us to come in to help them build that infrastructure and put into place have team leads and conduits between management and the associates that we bring in.

If the person coming in doesn’t disclose that they need X, Y and Z, that HR representative is not going to know, the managers are not going to know when they think “well, that’s quirky,” or whatever.

The goal, though, is to not think like that — I almost shouldn’t have this job in years to come. It should be a built into the DNA of every company who hires any individual to do that.

The companies that are established, they understand what questions to ask, but also what not to ask. You’re not going to ask somebody “Where do you see yourself in five years?” A person who is neurodivergent is not going to particularly know — I don’t know the answer to that, you know? So it’s not it’s almost not fair. You’re not having a level playing field. Our aim is to level that playing field.

Has the rise of remote work set off by the pandemic been beneficial for neurodiverse hiring?

Before the pandemic, there were minimal remote positions and that does decrease opportunities for neurodiverse individuals. You have a radius that you’re going to look at. But once you make that remote, it expands across the country. I have a person in De Moines Iowa applying for a job in in Newark, Delaware.

From an accommodation perspective, we also worried that maybe neurodiverse individuals would feel isolated at home, but we’ve found it’s been probably 99% not the case, with maybe that 1% where it just it doesn’t work out because they wanted the routine of coming to the office.

For those individuals who work in the office, what are some accommodations an employer can offer?

In the workplace, if you want to make sure that your talent is is taken care of and bringing themselves, their whole selves, to work, you’ve got to think, OK, maybe somebody who’s on the spectrum doesn’t like loud noises, so you provide them noise cancelling headphones. Maybe somebody doesn’t like another person walking behind them. You can go to Five Below and buy a little rearview mirror to put on their screen.

And then there’s really this cheap combination, which is red light, yellow light, green light. So, somebody who has anxiety, maybe they come into work and it’s green because they’re doing well. People should approach them. Maybe something happens during that day, they flip it to yellow, so coworkers know to back off a little and give them space. If they flip it to red, they’re probably not at their desk, they’re out resetting themselves and they’re going to come back in and maybe they flip it to yellow, maybe they flip it to green. Those are simple things as an organization and as a company can provide at relatively low cost or no cost.

There has been a lot of talk, with the rise of Zoom meetings, about whether policies like mandatory cameras on is necessary. Coming from a neurodiversity point of view, what do you think?

A manager should be able to ask a person how they want to receive communication, whether it’s through messaging, whether Zoom, whether it’s through email, whether it’s through phone, whether it’s video, whether it’s in person. If you ask a person which way they prefer the communication right off the bat, you’re going to know — and you shouldn’t be doing that just for somebody who you think or you know is neurodivergent.

For Zoom meetings, turn the camera off, I don’t care. It’s not affecting you and I talking at all, we’re just having a conversation. When it comes to things like team building exercises, it’s OK to opt out. It shouldn’t take away from career mobility because Sally doesn’t want to participate in that particular aspect.

It sounds like disclosure isn’t always necessary, which can also be helpful as some people are undiagnosed or are diagnosed later in life.

We would love for everybody to be able to be so secure and be able to disclose but disclosure is a challenge for some people and you cannot force that. You have to make your work environment comfortable.

-30-
Subscribe to our Newsletters
Technically Media
Connect with companies from the Technical.ly community
New call-to-action

Advertisement

Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly