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Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program creates pathways to jobs for students.

By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University of Utah Communications

Three things to know about the Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program

  1. The program provides work-based learning opportunities for students with conditions such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder.
  2. Faculty and staff can get awareness training so they are better able to assist students.
  3. Support and resources are available for students who are neurologically diverse and their families.

Utah businesses are pushing to hire people who are diverse as far as race, ethnicity, gender, age and physical ability. But what about people who are neurologically diverse?

They’re often an untapped pool of focused, creative thinkers who have a unique skill set and see the world — and thus problems — differently. An article by Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano in the Harvard Business Review called the inclusion of employees who are neurodiverse a “competitive advantage” for businesses.

For the past year, the university’s Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program has collaborated with students, faculty and businesses to develop career pathways into STEM fields for students with differently abled minds, particularly those with autism spectrum disorder. A new grant will allow the program to expand to other universities.

People with neurological conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Tourette Syndrome often get passed over in the job market — or pull themselves out — due to behavioral quirks and sensitivities.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah

Students from the U, SLCC and a charter high school participated in job-shadow opportunity provided by WorkFront.

“People on the autism spectrum have high unemployment rates even though they don’t have cognitive impairments,” said Cheryl Wright, professor of Family and Consumer Studies and co-founder of the Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program. “Just getting through a job interview can be a challenge. If they get past the interview and land a job, they may have a hard time keeping it because of environmental challenges, such as sensitivity to sounds, smells and sights.”

It is estimated that up to 3 percent of the college-age population nationally are on the autism spectrum, just one of the conditions associated with neurological diverse.

“They have the lowest entrance and success rate in higher education of all disabilities,” Wright said. “The difficulty is a lot of times these students don’t disclose. They go from a fairly supportive pre-college environment and then they come to campus and enter a blackhole. There is so much lost potential. These kids have the academic ability, but they need additional support to get jobs.”

The Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program, funded by the Talent Ready Utah initiative, has worked internally to enhance success of neurologically diverse students at the U through support services and awareness training for faculty and staff.

“Students don’t need to have an official diagnosis to be in the program,” said Valerie D’Astous, program director. “Anyone who needs extra help can be in this program.”

The program also is collaborating with businesses such as WorkFront, 3M, Innosys and UTA to establish mentoring, internship and apprenticeship opportunities. Its business outreach includes providing employers with awareness training so they understand how to support, respect and facilitate neurodiverse employees.

It often takes just minor accommodations to provide a good work environment for a neurodiverse employee, D’Astous said. Setting clear expectations and providing direct communication also helps.

“Getting it right for people who are neurologically diverse gets it right for everybody,” D’Astous said.

In its first year, the program placed 19 students with local businesses; two went on to get full-time jobs.

The program has received a second Talent Ready Utah grant, which it will use to expand its program to other higher education institutions across the state.

“It is worth it to have these diverse thinkers as part of our campus,” Wright said. “These are future innovators, the people who think differently and have great potential to contribute to society if we give them a chance.”