How a Teenager's Viral Post Points to a Huge Hiring Opportunity

March 17, 2021

At the beginning of March, Ryan Lowry, a 19-year-old in Leesburg, Virginia, posted a hand-written letter on LinkedIn with a simple message: Hire Me. 

Ryan wrote the note to future employers, explaining that “you will have to take a chance on me,” because, even though he’s “gifted at math, really good with technology and a really quick learner,” Ryan is autistic.

Ryan is right to be worried about his employment prospects. According to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.

For companies striving to create a more inclusive workforce, people like Ryan create a rich opportunity. There is a huge pool of highly qualified talent waiting to be tapped among candidates with neurodivergencies such as dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, and Tourette syndrome. And because these candidates bring a fresh perspective to companies, they can sometimes drive innovation simply because they view the world differently. 

How can you tap into this talent pool? Check out our six tips for recruiting and hiring a more neurodiverse workforce. 

1. Rewrite job descriptions to make them more inclusive

When you’re writing a job description, think about what skills an employee really needs to perform the role effectively. If you’re looking for a software engineer, for example, an ideal candidate should be able to analyze the needs of the user, as well as design, test, and develop software. But when you include requirements such as “excellent at communicating” or “highly organized,” you may be using language that excludes neurodivergent candidates. People with ASD often struggle with social interactions, so communication may not be their strong suit. Trim your job descriptions wherever possible to include only those skills that are essential to the position. 

2. Partner with outside organizations to find highly qualified neurodiverse talent

When Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) began their Dandelion Program — which offers jobs to people with ASD — in Australia in 2015, they paired with the Australian Department of Human Services and the Specialisterne Foundation, a Danish nonprofit devoted to finding meaningful employment for neurodivergent people. These organizations helped HPE identify top candidates and guided them in how to best support employees once they were hired.

HPE also gleaned wisdom from the Israeli Defense Forces, which created an initiative for neurodivergent people to serve in the armed forces, particularly in military intelligence, where their pattern recognition skills are highly valued.    

Your company might benefit from pairing with outside organizations to source talent. One place you can start is the Delivering Jobs campaign, launched in 2020 by Autism Speaks, Best Buddies, and the Special Olympics. The campaign works with companies to achieve the goal of helping 1 million people “with autism, intellectual or developmental differences” find jobs by 2025. 

3. Rethink interviews to assess practical skills, rather than social skills

One of the biggest challenges that neurodivergent candidates face is getting through the interview process. People with ASD can feel uncomfortable making eye contact and might be prone to veering off topic in the conversation. 

Microsoft’s Neurodiversity Hiring Program takes a different approach, placing an emphasis on assessing candidates’ practical skills. Qualified candidates complete an online technical assessment and, if they do well, are invited to a hiring event. During that event, they spend several days working on technical skills, team building, and interview preparation, as well as conducting interviews in formal and informal settings. But the main focus throughout is assessing whether a candidate has the skills to do the job. 

4. Learn how to communicate effectively with neurodiverse candidates

Even if your company doesn’t have a formal program like Microsoft or HPE, you can still make the interview process easier by learning how to effectively communicate with neurodiverse candidates.  

In advance of the interview, provide candidates with your list of questions, so they can prepare and feel more comfortable. If you’re meeting with them in person, conduct the interview in a quiet location without clutter and harsh lighting, as these can be distracting. Avoid open-ended questions and be as direct as possible, focusing on the candidate’s actual experiences rather than hypothetical situations. 

Finally, if several people need to interview a candidate, consider scheduling sequential meetings rather than placing candidates before a panel, as neurodivergent people sometimes find group settings to be a challenge. 

5. Ask candidates what accommodations they’ll need

It is common for people on the autism spectrum to experience sensory sensitivities — such as to loud noises or bright lights — that may require an accommodation. Many candidates may feel embarrassed to mention this, so ask what they’ll need to be successful in their roles, whether they’re working from home or in an office. They may need noise-canceling headphones to block external noises. They may require warmer lighting to be installed in their work area. They may need a low-sensory area, such as a dark, quiet room with comfortable seating, where they can occasionally retreat for breaks.

6. Provide new neurodivergent employees with extra support

Once you’ve hired a strong candidate, they may need extra support to succeed. SAP, which started one of the earliest neurodiversity hiring programs, Autism at Work, strives to create a welcoming environment for its employees with ASD. The company provides one-on-one mentors, who act as job coaches and help new employees settle into their new roles. SAP also encourages Autism at Work members to connect and share their experiences with each other. The result has been a 90% retention rate among hires with ASD.  

Do it for Ryan 

So many people were moved by Ryan Lowry’s heartfelt letter that his post went viral. He received multiple responses from other people on the spectrum, thanking him, as well as messages from employers, willing to speak with him about a job. 

Even his current employer, Beth Newton, chimed in, adding, “If anyone would like to see Ryan in action, he is one of my best employees at SimplyBE Coffee in Leesburg.” As Ryan wrote in his letter, “If you hire me and teach me, you’ll be glad that you did. I will show up every day, do what you tell me to do, and work really hard.” That’s what employers want in every candidate, whether they fit neatly into the neurotypical box or not.

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