Special Education

What Employers Can Teach Schools About Neurodiversity

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 12, 2021 8 min read
Conceptual image of someone who stands out.

Thinking differently can be an edge in the work world. Someone with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder may have a drive for novelty that can spark entrepreneurship. And an autistic student’s childhood fascination with games could launch a career in software development. Employers and researchers alike are now beginning to understand how issues that challenge students in the classroom can come with benefits for the right job.

Yet even as some of the world’s biggest companies, including Microsoft and SAP, have launched hiring initiatives focused on recruiting more workers with autism, ADHD, and other categories of brain differences, experts say schools still do little to teach students how to leverage their strengths rather than make up for their disabilities when preparing for colleges and careers.

“You know, there’s a lot of publicity about neurodiversity in the workplace, but it hasn’t filtered to the special education community,” said Thomas Armstrong, the executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, which provides teacher training on students in special education, and author of several books on neurodiversity and special education. “Special ed. is still dragging its heels from a past that is oriented around disease, deficits, and disorders.”

By law, schools must use a student’s strengths to guide the development of their individualized education programs for special education, and beginning at age 14, IEPs must also include goals for students in their transition to work or study after high school. But in practice, most high school guidance counselors have large caseloads and little time for the more intensive coordination with family and special education and general education teachers that may be needed for full career planning for such students, according to Chantall Lowe, senior director of community engagement for IncludeNYC, an advocacy and support group for students with disabilities and their families in New York.

“I think when you do see supported employment being talked about early on for young people, you see a lot of hospitality and retail and service industry jobs,” Lowe said. “It’s kind of like, we have these couple of buckets, and this is what we’re going to do, and there’s less of, OK, this is what this young person is interested in. Can we find something that meets those needs?”

As of 2020, the most recent available federal data show, the unemployment rates for those with a disability remain higher than the rates for those without, across all ages and educational attainment levels. People with a disability were more likely to be self-employed than those without a disability.

Traditional approaches can create inequities

The problems for students in special education go beyond just limited formal programs to connect them to jobs. Studies suggest that just being labeled as having a disability can limit students’ access to courses they could succeed in, and that these students need to have hope of a broader array of career options later.

“People don’t understand that many of these disabilities are not based on low IQ. A lot of those kids with ADHD and kids with learning disabilities, are high IQ and [when] they’re achieving below their potential is usually how those were diagnosed,” said Dara Shifrer, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University in Oregon. “But I don’t think kids are told this when they’re diagnosed, and so it really affects their social psyches and affects the way their teachers perceive them, the way their parents perceive them.”

In one 2013 study, researchers compared the course-taking of high schoolers who had an individualized education program for a learning disability to students with no such designation, but who had closely matched 10th grade reading and math assessment scores, ages, backgrounds, academic mindsets of themselves and their close friends, and reported behavior problems in school.

They found that a student labeled with a learning disability was 19 percentage points less likely to complete college preparatory coursework than a student with similar academic placement, performance, mindset and behavior in early high school but who was not labeled with a disability. Among students of similar income levels, there were larger gaps in course-taking between students identified with learning disabilities and similar students without than there was between white students and students of color.

“We found teachers have much lower expectations for the kids with learning-disability diagnoses than they do similarly achieving kids without the diagnosis, said Shifrer, the lead author of the study. “And that kind of tracks through their high school experience to change the way they see themselves and what courses are placed into.

“Maybe for the low-performing kid without the diagnosis, the teacher might attribute their low performance to laziness or home support, while for the kid with the disability they might think, oh, this kid is neurologically unable to perform. And so why intervene then?” she said. “So it can be a really vicious cycle.”

In a separate study published earlier this spring, Shifrer and her colleagues analyzed the data of more than 15,000 adolescents who entered high school in 2009 through three years after high school. They tracked students whose schools or parents reported they had been diagnosed with a learning or intellectual disability, developmental delay, autism, or attention deficits. For those with attention deficits, researchers also noted whether or not symptoms were being treated medically, as prior studies have found students with treated ADHD have better outcomes than those with untreated symptoms.

Students who had been diagnosed with disabilities were significantly less likely to enroll in college—48 percent to 58 percent, depending on the type of disability, compared to 73 percent of students without disabilities. The researchers found that high school achievement in math and science classes was a better predictor of whether a student with disabilities enrolled in college after high school than the student’s attitude toward sciences, but once in college, a student’s attitude toward science was a more important predictor of whether he or she actually chose a science, engineering, technology, or math major. In fact, undergraduate students with autism or medicated ADHD were more likely to choose a STEM field than students who had no cognitive disabilities.

“Promoting the participation of women, underrepresented racial minorities, and others are seen as cases of equity, but the under-representation of people with cognitive disabilities, that’s seen as normal and inevitable, because there’s this notion that they don’t belong in the STEM world,” Shifrer said. “It’s so ingrained in us that these people lack potential that it’s rarely raised as an equity concern and a socially rooted problem.”

A Neurodiverse Worker Looks Back

Stephen Braun, a quality assurance lead at Aspiritech, a Chicago technology firm, manages software and game design and development. One of the more than 90 percent of the firm on the autism spectrum, he said he had a hard time retaining information during lectures in school, but picks up things visually quickly.
Braun said he always wanted to go into video game design and programming, but was repeatedly shut down in high school. He had an individualized education program but, “they didn’t follow it much,” he recalled.
“I didn’t really learn much in terms of college prep, since they didn’t really think I was capable of going to college,” Braun said. “In terms of my career path, I was laughed at when I spoke about my ambitions.”
In senior year, Braun switched schools and got involved with PACE, a three-year postsecondary transition program for students with developmental learning needs at National Louis University. From there, he entered Tribeca Flashpoint Academy, a media arts college, where he graduated in 2014.
Today Braun has helped design and produce games in contract work, and at Aspiritech has responsibility for workers in four projects while also setting up training sessions for other analysts to learn about new features and products.
Here are Braun’s suggestions on how educators can help neurodiverse students make better transitions to college and careers:

  • Encourage students to focus on specific skills needed for jobs that interest them. As Braun notes, “I had a general idea of what to focus on. I just didn’t really know how to. As I was gearing up for college, I began to use UDK—which is a game engine—and I started to learn c++. It was mainly through trial and error.”
  • Teach “basic life skills” for the work world, like budgeting and dealing with stress.
  • Allow students to try something new even if they may not succeed. “If a person wants to try a new subject or something that they are interested in, have them go for it,” he said. “It’s better for someone to fail than to be told they are not capable of doing something.”

This employer turns autism into a strength

Helping students plan their careers based on their strengths doesn’t mean ignoring their challenges, but helping them learn to manage them and advocate for support from employers, Lowe said.

“It’s taking people with a certain challenge and putting them in a job where they are highlighting their talents and supporting their weaknesses—whereas most disability employment models put people in jobs that tend to highlight their weaknesses,” said Brad Cohen, the chief marketing officer at Aspiratech, a Chicago-area technology firm that contracts workers with autism. “People that are on the autism spectrum tend to have a great focus, attention to detail. Often they have the ability to do a highly focused, repetitive task without losing concentration when someone else might be jumping out the window—and those talents are precisely what software testing is.”

Ninety percent of the company’s 130 employees have some degree of autism, and the company keeps five specialists and a dozen job coaches on staff to help employees manage work challenges—procuring headphones to help block out noisy office spaces or helping those who are uncomfortable with social speaking find new ways to keep their managers updated on projects.

The firm hires workers through interviews and aptitude tests, and provides training and job shadowing for those it hires. The company has a wait list for applicants, mainly developed through word of mouth from parents and autism advocacy groups. But Cohen said there is a “disconnect” in the skills and guidance schools give to students in college and career planning and the broader skills for career matching and self-advocacy in the workplace that neurodiverse students need.

Cohen suggested that when planning broader college and career initiatives with local businesses, school and district administrators should actively look for companies interested in hiring neurodiverse workers and find out what other specific skills they need. Organizing cohorts of neurodiverse students for internships—potentially with faculty support—can be better for introducing students and employees than simply helping a student find a solo opportunity interning or job shadowing at a workplace in which he or she would be the only neurodiverse person in the office.

“Success in life has to do with being in a job that makes the most of your strengths and minimizes the difficulties,” Armstrong said. “And unfortunately, we’re not making that connection for kids or helping them make that connection. And so they end up a student with an ADHD diagnosis in a 9-to-5 desk job where the stress level is going up over the top, and they interpret their stress as just another symptom of ADHD—when in fact, they ought to be a forest ranger or a fire fighter, or an emergency room physician, something with lots of thrills instead of sitting in a cubicle farm somewhere.”

In fact, some studies have found disproportionate numbers of chief executive officers and entrepreneurs with ADHD, with a greater tolerance for risk and experimentation.

“Their intensive focus and honed expertise influence the distribution between positive and negative outcomes,” found a team of researchers led by Johan Wiklund of Syracuse University. “It thus seems that the impulsivity to act facilitates an ongoing process of experimentation, which is taken to various ends through passion, time commitment, and persistence. Entrepreneurs with ADHD are guided by what is rather than what will be.”

The bottom line, said Armstrong of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development is that “we need to go beyond the labels and go to specific skills and interests of the child” in both the workplace and in school.

Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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