Diversity & Inclusion

Reading and Writing the Neurodiversity Playbook

Anthony Pacilio, Vice President of Neurodiverse Solutions at CAI, talks about Neurodiversity as an emerging area in the DEI space and what drew him to the specialty.

What drew you to the specialty? And when you first started doing articles and speeches on the topic, how were you greeted?

Well, it’s different for everyone. In my case, I’ve masked being neurodivergent. I’m a white male in an executive position at this point in my career. But all my life I’ve masked my social anxiety disorder and the depression that comes along with it. We were just talking about my educational training in radio and television. I knew I had challenges and tribulations throughout my life, but it was never put at the forefront until I graduated college and started that first foray into banking. I always tell the story about having a friend, who has since passed away, that had Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He was an amazing human being, but no one quite got him because he’d play with finger puppets to reduce his anxiety. And that was his “stim pattern,” a self-soothing mechanism.

He was the most talented graphic designer you would ever meet, but no one knew it, right? He would go home—to his parents’ home—and he would go into his room, log on to the computer, and build these amazing pieces of architecture. And I always say: Imagine if we had programs back then like we have now! We have neurodiverse workplaces; huge companies, from a DEI standpoint, making sure that people who have invisible disabilities and physical challenges now have an equal seat at the table.

Now we’re all at the same table. And that was happenstance because the financial institution I worked for needed some QA [quality assurance] folks, and they were looking at different ways to get talent into the organization, and one of those came back using individuals with ASD. And my boss was like, “We should try this out.” And I’m like, “Absolutely, we should try this out.” And it was ridiculously successful!

But what else it does is it changes cultures. It changes the way that I engage with others. I’m comfortable telling people that I have an extreme social anxiety disorder and depression. It makes it so that people understand that they, too, can say that they have X, Y or Z and still feel comfortable that there are organizations and companies that are going to support that, that are building programs to make sure that their neurodivergent employees are successful.

Part of what I do at CAI Neurodiverse Solutions is help make sure that people have the opportunity to have long-lasting, meaningful, rewarding careers, not just temporary employment. It’s making sure that they can see the journey, the path of the individual.

While many people may have heard the word “neurodiversity,” a lot of our readers may not really know what it encompasses. Can you just give us a quick definition of the term for those who need it, and tell us what’s been going on around neurodiversity in the last two years?

Absolutely. Neurodiversity itself is just a different way that the brain thinks and can include extraordinary skills relating to memory, pattern recognition, mathematics—among many other skills. Neurodiversity is a big tent, encompassing ASD, ADHD, ADD, social anxiety disorders, mood disorders, PTSD—so best to just think of it as “somebody who thinks differently.” I think it all started out with Autism at Work. The initiative, way back when, between Microsoft, JPMorgan Chase, SAP, EY, and others. I was part of one of those. We raised consciousness until the broader business community came to understand they could employ people who think differently.

You’re probably working next to somebody who is neurodivergent. Most people today might have X or Y neurodevelopmental disorder; you just don’t know it because they may not feel comfortable sharing as they think it might affect their promotion opportunities or lead to some other bad outcome. That whole stigma is something we’re trying to change. Neurodiversity in the workplace is a subset of the whole DEI initiative. But neurodiversity itself? It’s just a different way of thinking.

It’s clear that employers can benefit from understanding that just as there are benefits to diversity in terms of gender, sexual preference, ethnicity and color, there are benefits to neurodiversity and that those benefits may be even more direct. You already mentioned a few things, like pattern recognition. Can you expand on that?

There are a lot of different benefits. I’ll speak to skillsets first, and then talk about something that nobody thinks about. If you’re looking to expand your talent pool with this untapped talent, things you can expect are different perspectives in data analysis, innovative solutions, problem solving and, as mentioned, pattern recognition. Some of these skills are ideal for careers in technology, finance, legal, cybersecurity and healthcare research.

When you have someone who is neurodivergent working with someone who might be neurotypical, you’re getting two different ways of looking at solutions. So if someone neurotypical is coding in Python, we’re finding that the neurodivergent individual sitting next to him comes up with things that he would never think of because he looks at the world in a very different way.

For example, we had a young man who works in a financial institution where they were doing some different coding projects, and there was a problem with a machine. It was a rounding error that was costing them millions. So, our team came in who are neurodivergent. Within a week this one particular gentleman who has ASD identified the problem and then, within a couple hours, fixed it. The company is now saving millions on a monthly basis, just on this one fix that it never thought of even looking into. So yes, there are all these little things that somebody who thinks differently, has a different perspective, can find, and do.

There’s one other greater good out of this. It’s empathy. When you have somebody who does things a little differently, you learn—as an individual, as a human being—that accepting someone who can do things differently is an asset to not only the organization, but to yourself, personally.

I am super passionate when I speak about this. If we were both on screen, you’d see my hands going a mile a minute, and not just because I’m Italian, but it’s because in today’s world, a lot of things are a little bit skewed in people’s minds, and I’m passionate about normalizing mental health. When you bring someone in who is neurodivergent, it changes the culture of your organization for the better. In addition to the fact that you’re getting an amazing return on your investment financially, you’re also making a return on investment in a human being’s life because you are giving them that long-lasting career and helping them gain confidence in their ability to be successful.

We’ve had so many people who have now become independent from their parents and gotten their first apartment, their driver’s license, things that people take for granted, things they struggled to achieve for such a long time. So, companies being able to recognize the skillsets and employ someone who is neurodivergent are giving an opportunity to someone who didn’t have that opportunity before. We have people who are now getting married and starting families of their own. It’s the most wonderful thing ever.

With neurodiversity an emerging area in the DEI space, are you finding that it has to compete with other diverse populations for attention and resources?

Well, this is a movement. Obviously, there’s a lot of jobs out there. I know we don’t want to talk about the word recession at the moment, but I still think executives and senior sponsors are reachable. It sometimes starts with someone who has a child, or a niece or nephew, or who knows someone who’s neurodivergent and sees their potential. The competition for talent is still alive because it’s not yet built into the DNA of all HR and hiring practices within companies. That’s why it’s important for people like myself and programs like CAI Neurodiverse Solutions to help companies understand the benefits of neurodiversity and build the infrastructure to support it.

We’ll do the heavy lift: providing access to a pool of talented individuals and helping to ensure that they’re successful.

So, there’s some education and training that needs to go on within companies, including law firms. We start small, such as putting in three or four individuals, with a neurodiversity-certified team leader who provides the right education and coaching to both CAI and clients, and then supports them in the long-term with mentorship, on-the-job training, and professional development. This model can be scaled.

So your strategy has been to put small teams in place with leaders who really already get it.

Yes. Our model is probably different from others in this space. We’re a person-first organization. If we have a client or potential client, we ensure that before one of our people sets foot within that company, that the client has neurodiversity awareness training for all of the people that are going to be working side by side with our candidate. The awareness session teaches them about neurodivergent characteristics and qualities, ways of communicating, and so much more.

When we talk to a client, we also look into what they have in the way of a support system. For example, we encourage them to identify mentors and buddies. From our service delivery managers to our talent acquisition and learning and development teams, they are all part of this plan, and are able to educate and serve as a conduit between our associates and the client. If somebody doesn’t understand something, our team leaders are versed in the relevant technology or job function so they can bridge the communication gap. We’re also there to provide metrics to track performance, productivity, and quality.

We’re holistic in our approach. We’re not just putting people in this site or that job function. The client needs to be invested in this. They need to find the right managers through proper vetting. Everybody’s going to raise their hand for this Neurodiversity @ Work program, but they need to be super careful about who manages these individuals. We tell the client to interview people who work for the prospective manager to learn how they give feedback. Do they do it once a week, twice a month, once a quarter? And what does that look like? Are they doing it through email? Are they doing it through Teams? The manager needs to be involved in the day-to-day efforts of our associates as well. There are many different criteria we look at to make sure that the client is just as ready as the candidate coming in. It’s more important that the client is a right fit for the candidate than the other way around.

Bottom line, what our clients are finding is that the neurodiverse community has a success factor that is unlike any other. They just go about their business, are very loyal and their retention is amazingly high. They love sequencing and repetitive tasks. But while some may want to do the same job for 30 years, others are looking for career mobility. So if they’re in back-office operations, they want to do something different, so we also ensure that the client has career pathing.

Can you give an example or two of some successful initiatives that others might be able to use as a model?

We’ve had individuals who went into one of our healthcare organizations and knocked it out of the park when doing process documentation, doubling the work effort of their neurotypical peers. At a financial institution, we had folks that came in to do access security management, providing roles and processes for logging in to computers. They were up to 120 percent more productive than folks that were at the job for 5, 10 or 15 years.

It’s because of their ability to focus. If you’re giving an instruction, neurodivergent individuals typically follow the process. And if you have a good process laid out, that process is going to be followed every single time. That’s where you see the return on investment from a financial standpoint. The success you see from the human side are parents calling you saying, “I never thought Tommy or Sally was ever going to have a full-time job, making X dollars and being able to get their first apartment or live independently. You don’t know what you’ve done to change not only their lives, but our family’s lives, to allay the fears I have of what’s going to happen to Sally or Tommy when I’m gone.”

From global conglomerates to small businesses, we’re providing employers access to this untapped talent pool and it’s changing not only the business piece of it, but it’s changing lives.

Is this a worldwide movement, or is it localized?

This is worldwide. We’ve had Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable meetings that span the globe. Attendees at Disability:IN, which was in Dallas recently, included global companies looking to see what the best practices are and what new technologies are available for people with disabilities. CAI Neurodiverse Solutions is expanding globally. That said, there’s stigma all over the world. Some geographic locations are more mature and embrace our message, while others are still learning how to utilize this wonderful talent.

Sensitivity to differences has got some people spooked about how to speak about neurodiversity. Any ideas on how people can become more comfortable talking about neurodiversity?

You can educate yourself through research, but also by talking to individuals like me. If anybody wants to go on LinkedIn or email me or call me, I will talk to anybody about the vernacular of neurodiversity or being neurodivergent, and employment programs. I love it when people come to me and say, “Hey, listen, we have all of these folks who are unemployed or underemployed. They’re at the local stores doing stock jobs, but they have a four-year degree.” Just because somebody may do something that doesn’t fit the norm, or have a stimming mechanism like flapping the arms or pacing—doesn’t render them unfit. We have to learn to let that part go and focus on their skill set.

It’s about saying to Tommy or Sally, “This job opportunity is X. Have you done that before? Great. Can we give you any accommodations to do your job better?” It shouldn’t be a shy-away mentality. It should be an “I’m embracing that mentality.” Because the world is diverse, and it’s just not race, gender, ethnicity; it’s also people with disabilities. People who don’t look like everybody else can do the job just as well as people who look like everybody else.

You know what? It would be great if every person could take five minutes to consider all the people out there with physical disabilities that are knocking it out of the park. You could talk about all the celebrities who may be neurodivergent; your Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs.

It shouldn’t be a scary concept to offer people a wonderful opportunity to live their lives just like everybody else. It’s about caring. Let’s just be human is all I’m asking. You don’t avoid people with differences, you find what they’re good at. That sums up what we do at CAI Neurodiverse Solutions.

You do talk about technology in some of your materials. What is the tech that CAI, or you personally, are involved in?

CAI is a global technology services firm with over 7,500 associates worldwide and over 40 years of excellence in uniting talent and technology. CAI Neurodiverse Solutions is a subset of that, so we started in technology—doing quality assurance and analysis—but that has morphed over the years as we’ve gone deeper into what companies need.

As for myself, I don’t claim to be a techie because I’m not. All of these folks I help place could run circles around me talking about RPA and AI. My area of expertise is helping companies build the infrastructure, finding what their pain points are and making sure that they have talent to fill those needs, whatever they may be.

Anything else you’d like to mention?

CAI scored 100% on a Disability Equality Index and has been named a Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion for the second year in a row. We are committed to a disability-inclusive work environment and helping make effective hiring practices for our internal employees and to our clients. We attended the Disability:IN Global Conference and Expo in July for our recognition and to network with candidates and other organizations advancing workplace accessibility.

We’ve also been named a Forbes Best Employers for Diversity, earned the Change Maker award from Quality Services for the Autism Community (QSAC), and we are a member of the Neurodiversity @ Work Employer Roundtable and helped launch the Neurodiversity Career Connector.

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