This month's featured article discusses the importance and benefits of supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. "Calvin's" story represents the difficult journey that many of our participants face when searching for a new job. 

by Leslie O’Brien, LICSW, MGH Aspire Works Program Manager

Calvin was bright, capable, interested in joining the workforce, and had incredible potential, yet he was lacking the necessary skills to interview successfully. His strengths and challenges are similar to many of the candidates we work with at MGH Aspire Works. Calvin’s story illustrates one of the many ways in which employers can actively support neurodiversity in the workplace. 

When asked about his typical interview experience, Calvin said he often felt overwhelmed with anxiety, misread non-verbal cues, and had difficulty recalling information in response to unexpected questions. He said he would freeze, look down, try to answer what questions he could, and ultimately would just wait for the interview to end. He came to MGH Aspire Works as a capable and qualified candidate with a strong desire to be employed; yet suffered from significantly low self-confidence.

With areas of challenge in social communication and self-advocacy, many neurodiverse candidates struggle to make it through the interview process. Traditional networking situations and interviews are essentially social competency tests and do not allow candidates to demonstrate their relevant work skills or abilities.  Many times, we have seen an incredibly talented applicant like Calvin be less likely to receive a job offer over a more socially capable but less skilled candidate.

Now imagine a restructured interview process that focuses on identifying the applicant’s skillset and abilities through work samples and activities, rather than conversation and questions. Employers would instead provide an opportunity for an applicant like Calvin to showcase his capabilities.

It could look something like this:

Calvin was assigned a series of tasks and assessments in lieu of conversation. Calvin demonstrated his competencies in critical thinking, quality assurance and attention to detail.  Without the pressure of having to manage a conversation about subject matters that didn’t pertain to his specific degree, skill-set, or areas of interest, Calvin’s stress and anxiety levels significantly decreased.  He performed exceptionally well throughout the interview and was regarded as a well-qualified candidate. The company happily offered him an internship and Calvin accepted.

Calvin’s story is not at all uncommon. It’s time to interview differently.  At MGH Aspire Works, we often encourage companies to consider a work assessment to best evaluate the qualifications and capabilities of their applicants.  If employers can focus on the great skills that an employee with autism may have - like superior attention to detail, strength with repetition, or exceptional content expertise, then what may have been considered a weakness may now be seen as a strength.