Ed. note: the following is a first-hand account of one person’s experience at the EY Neuro-Diverse Center of Excellence. The author has requested to be anonymous.
On Saturday Night Live last March, Elon Musk came out on national TV as having Asperger’s syndrome. For the neurodiverse, this event was momentous not only because Musk hosted the show, but because four months before he’d been crowned the wealthiest man in the world.
The message was clear: The neurodiverse can and do achieve greatness.
But Musk’s success begs a question for people like me who are neurodiverse and work in corporate America: Could the PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX founder have flourished in a conventional corporate environment as a run-of-the-mill employee? Or has his extreme success been due in part to his entrepreneurship? On being his own boss from the start? On creating a work environment that suited his particular needs? On being able to publicly say controversial things at work and suffering few repercussions?
In the last 10 years, companies such as JPMorgan Chase, Microsoft, Deloitte, Dell, and HPE have created programs and initiatives for the neurodiverse like the “Neurodiversity Hiring Program” and “Autism@Work.” These programs claim to foster a welcoming and productive workplace for people like me, programs committed to providing equal opportunity and reasonable accommodation for the neurodiverse.
I know this because four years ago, I was hired into one and stayed for two years. With some solid skills and two years of experience at a well-known firm, I went back onto the competitive job market. I identified as disabled in my application, didn’t require any accommodations in the hiring process. Two years later, I’m still in that job and happy and thriving, and I still haven’t disclosed my disability or requested reasonable accommodations. But would that have been the case if I’d remained in one of the first and preeminent hiring programs run by a firm that, in its own words, leverages the talents of neurodiverse professionals to meet the firm’s most urgent needs?
“Autism can bring many challenges,” says an Ernst & Young invitation to learn about its program, “but it also represents a key opportunity for EY …” I’m not autistic, though I am neurodivergent. Neurodiversity is a broad category that includes ASD and other diagnoses.
My struggle started decades before in leafy Westchester County, NY. Something was amiss in first grade. My teacher said I was scattered and distracted, and I was held back. Undiagnosed as a teen, my social and academic career resembled that of a normative kid struggling with something — but who knew what? No one at the time took a deeper look.
I did finish college and earned a Master’s in Math Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. But a career in teaching was not in the cards as I ran into problems that only made sense later in the light of a diagnosis. My trouble was twofold: managing a classroom and reading nonverbal cues.
In and out of jobs and suffering emotionally, I started therapy for anxiety and depression. Shortly before my 30th birthday, my therapist referred me for neuropsychological testing at Mount Sinai. I was diagnosed with NLD (nonverbal learning disability) and the inattentive type of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) which frequently goes undiagnosed in children.
After my diagnosis, I struggled with what my disability meant for me, how to use this new awareness, how and when to disclose my disability, and how to request accommodations.
After three years, I became more “disability confident,” attending career fairs targeted to disabled people, applying for workforce development programs and vocational rehabilitation with the New York State Department of Labor. On job applications, I began to identify as “disabled.”
In 2017, I completed a training program with what’s now known as Neurodiversity Pathways-Goodwill Silicon Valley. It was a five-week workforce development program in data analysis. It was there that I found EY, recruiting for their new program: the Neuro-Diversity Center of Excellence (NCoE), this one in Texas.
Continuing with EY’s recruitment process, I flew myself to Dallas and attended a week-long interview. The firm called it “Super Week.”
From nine to five daily, they plied us candidates with calculations, word problems, and various projects to see how we’d react to change and handle stress. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a position and moved from New York to Dallas to start. The first NCoE started in Philadelphia, and the team was known as the Philly Four. When my cohort started, we dubbed ourselves the Texas Ten.
It was exciting.
I was hoping, like any employee would, that I could use the opportunity to move from a support position onto a career track. I wasn’t imagining a management position — I knew I wasn’t well-suited for that — but I hoped to become an expert in something for the firm and was ready to work hard and be a loyal employee.
For the first two months, they “onboarded” us with software tutorials — some skills of which I ended up using on the job, but most not. We had a boss who seemed to care and a reason to believe this training would move us forward.
Our boss was compassionate and willing to listen to what we had to say; to meet our needs so we could meet the company’s needs. Like Jerry Maguire, her modus operandi was something like, “Help me help you help me.” She treated the team like adults and individuals.
But sadly, she didn’t last.
The woman who replaced her knew only enough about neurodiversity and only enough about information technology (not that much) to end up a danger to us all. We found ourselves living in the shadow of a boss and a program manager beset by the Dunning-Kruger effect: they both thought they knew more than we did about our talents and needs.
We were treated like a monolith kindergarten class.
We were forced into the same stereotypical accommodations whether we requested them or not, whether we needed them or not. We were made to work in a segregated office space. There were the regular HR rules and other unwritten rules we learned by getting caught out, like spending too much time in the mini conference room or asking too many questions.
And when our program managers weren’t choosing to infantilize and isolate us, they went the other way and paraded us around, selling the program and those of us in it like a circus act, on display, forcing us to identify ourselves by the program and therefore our diagnoses, too (which violated our rights to medical privacy.)
As months went on, it became clear to me that the Center didn’t want what was best for me or even the firm and its partners.
The Center wanted what was best for the Center.
My hopes to be mainstreamed, to move up and out, were moot. Like Hotel California, my program director wanted me to enter and stay in the program … forever. This was the real cost of entrance. The price of the ticket.
The highest functioning among us made the Center look great. When things were going well, we streamlined and automated time-sucking processes, coded, and built websites. I was part of a team that developed an automation algorithm that saved the company half a million work hours a year.
EY has taken its model to market, so to speak, and advises other companies worldwide to implement similar programs, hawking and branding potential neurodiverse candidates as having the “autism talent advantage.” This is biz speak for our stereotypical traits: myopic focus, an interest in tech, the ability to withstand repetitive busywork, and savant memory.
You know. You’ve seen The Big Bang Theory and Rainman.
Even as these companies parade these programs in front of the press, virtue signaling every time they start a new one in a new office or a new city, what they fail to mention is that they’re also fulfilling a federal mandate. Many hold contracts with the U.S. government for deals in the millions. To comply with these contracts, they must prove that they adhere to Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which requires them “to take affirmative action to recruit, hire, promote, and retain people with physical and mental impairments.”
So is this the true incentive for the programs? It’s hard to know.
During my last four months on the job, my team’s morale hit a new low and so did mine. In an esteem-building exercise, members of the Texas Ten said they felt “siloed” and “segregated.” One asked our manager what he meant by the word “inclusion.” He said point-blank, “If you don’t like it, you can find the door.”
Felt right for Hollywood. Maybe Wall Street. The difference between the firm’s stated values and the reality of our day-to-day work lives was stark. This was supposed to be a safe place where we could be authentic and I was shocked by his response.
We were not to question. We were not to protest or challenge.
They were giving us a full-time job with salary and benefits — it helped them fulfill a federal mandate, the work we did, despite our disabilities, was value-added. They required not only our work, but our undue compliance and gratitude.
The office was filled with tension, mixed emotion, mixed messaging, and a resigned sadness that came from knowing our chance to advance was close to nil. Some months we were assigned long bouts of busy work or no work at all. Of my team of 10, two ended up taking leaves of absence to deal with subsequent depression and anxiety. One even went out on disability. Me, I filed an ethics complaint, found a new job, and gave the requisite two-weeks notice.
Two years later, I’m still in my new job. It’s not accounting or auditing, but I enjoy it, and my boss is respectful and encouraging. I’ve earned performance awards, accolades, and best of all, I do meaningful work, and am growing professionally.
I’ve never mentioned my neurodiversity, and no one’s ever asked.
Elon Musk is quoted as saying, “I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.”
It’s good advice.
These programs could work. Some of them do to a degree, no doubt. Some don’t. I’m a private person who finds it difficult to discuss my disability even discreetly, much less in public, but if I were asked how to improve these programs — which I wasn’t, of course, while I was in one – I’d advise this: let your neurodiverse employees tell you who they are, what they can offer, and dictate the services they need. Don’t blanket us with your good intentions and broad ideas. Allow us to hope and dream. Let us explore, let us climb, like any other employee might. Allow your programs to be an on-ramp into your company. Let us show you what we can do. Take risks. Treat us like the adults we are. We might embarrass you in front of a client. We might not. The neurodiverse population is as diverse as the female or African American or LGBTQ population. We’re not all the same, even if we fall into this category. Not even close.
In the U.S. alone in the next decade, more than 500,000 college graduates across the autism spectrum will age into young adults who need jobs. Today, only 15% of autistic college graduates are employed. That math should alarm everyone as the price is a cost to us all.
If these inclusion programs worked and worked well, we’d all stand to profit.