Episode 19: Strengths-Based Practices to Support Neurodiversity at Work
In honor of Neurodiversity Celebration Week, March 13 – 19, Scott Michael Robertson, Ph.D., Senior Policy Adviser in the Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor, gives tips and advice for taking a strengths-based approach to supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. Robertson uses his personal experiences as an autistic man to illustrate his suggestions.
Scott Robertson: [00:00:00.23] I like to emphasize a strengths-based perspective. So, I think that employers should know that neurodivergent people like myself bring key strengths, talents, skills, knowledge and abilities that can help enhance work and the workplace. Plus, employers can drive efforts to recruit, hire, retain and advance neurodivergent people like me to tap these assets and adopt enhanced work supports and accommodations. Working with industry intermediaries and providers of services can help support this goal.
Intro: [00:00:33.28] Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrill, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, HR and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:59.45] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. In November of 2020, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth and high-demand jobs. Before I introduce our guest, I want to hear from you. Please text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. You can ask me questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you. The Workology podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and ACE the HR Exam. These are two courses for HR certification prep and HR recertification that Workology offers. Today, I’m joined by Dr. Scott Michael Robertson. He’s a Senior Policy Advisor with the Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. This is in the U.S. Department of Labor and he’s an autistic person. Scott is a policy expert and a social scientist with expertise in areas ranging from accessible emerging technology to inclusive employment, education and community living. He previously served as a Joseph P. Kennedy Junior Fellow at the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, or HELP. Scott has also served as the Founding Vice President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, or ASAN. It’s a national 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Scott completed his PhD in information sciences and technology at Penn State University. He received his master’s degree in human computer interaction at the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and graduated summa cum laude. His recent honors include a Henry Viscardi Achievement Award for exemplary global leaders and a NextGen Public Service award for championing diversity, equity and inclusion. Scott, welcome to the Workology podcast.
Scott Robertson: [00:03:33.06] Hello, Jessica. Thank you for having me today. It is great to speak with you for the podcast and happy Neurodiversity Week 2023. Since we’re audio, I thought it would be helpful to give a short, visual description of myself. I’m a white autistic man with blue eyes, brown hair and eyeglasses, wearing a blue shirt today.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:03:51.06] Awesome. Well, I’m so excited to have you on. Let’s jump in and talk about your background. What led you to your current role as senior policy advisor at ODEP?
Scott Robertson: [00:04:00.77] So, that is a great question. I have a very atypical background as a policy adviser, senior policy advisor here. I’ve had an interest for a really long time on improving access to life opportunities for people with disabilities. Some of my interest in that space comes from my lived experience as a person with significant disabilities, including my autism. And so, I thought it would be a great opportunity to help improve access to gainful, competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. And an opening happened to be available here at the Office of Disability Employment Policy in 2015 when I joined the U.S. Department of Labor. And I had just left the Hill a year before and was looking for great opportunities in this space that could fit my skills and talents and my interest again on improving access to opportunities for people with disabilities. And I hold several key roles for my job here as a Senior Policy Advisor on the Employment-Related Supports Policy Team at the Office of Disability Employment Policy or ODEP here in the U.S. Department of Labor, DOL. First, I serve as a Federal Project Manager for the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, PIA, to improve access to career pathways in high-growth, high demand areas such as information technology and health care.
Scott Robertson: [00:05:26.73] I advance national policies and practices to help foster inclusive apprenticeships and support inclusive talent pipelines for these career pathways. Second, I direct efforts to drive neurodiversity at work and enhance national autism policies and practices, including for our core priorities under the federal Autism CARES Act. For instance, I serve as a key subject matter expert for ODEP’s project on research support services for employment of young adults on the autism spectrum. We call it REYAAS for short. And I represent ODEP at the Federal Interagency Workgroup on Autism. I also serve as the alternate federal representative for DOL on the U.S. Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee or the IACC. Both my lived perspective as an autistic person and my professional expertise enhance this work and help shape my ideas for improved supports. I’ve also helped drive policies and practices for accessible emerging technology. This focus has included equity and access for artificial intelligence or AI and automated vehicles as it relates to employment.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:06:34.15] Wow. What an interesting background and exciting areas that you’re really able to impact. For this podcast, I wanted to focus on the topic of neurodivergence. So maybe for those in our audience who are not familiar, can you define what neurodivergent means for us?
Scott Robertson: [00:06:54.31] Sure. That is a great question. First, let me help define neurodiversity so that the audience can gain a clearer perspective on this context. Neurodiversity, which stands for neurological diversity, refers to the diverse thinking, learning, and perception of life experiences among all people here in the United States and around the world. It benefits the workplace in the same way that biodiversity and rich ecosystems with diverse animals, plants and other species help planet Earth to thrive. Neurodivergence refers to a subset of people who may think, learn and perceive the world rather atypically, and we often show up as outliers on cognitive testing. Diverse neurodivergent people include people on the autism spectrum like myself, people with ADHD, people with intellectual disability and mental health conditions and people with a wide range of other cognitive disabilities. Frequently neurodivergent people have untapped or under-tapped strengths, talents and skills that can enhance workplaces. We also often experience major barriers to attaining and retaining employment and prepare and ready skills for the workplace. Plus, inclusive apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning can offer pivotal gateways to gainful employment and career paths for neurodivergent people like me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:20.42] So, for HR leaders, can you talk maybe about what some accommodations might look like for neurodivergent individuals?
Scott Robertson: [00:08:29.63] Sure. So, this focus on work accommodations and supports; it really carries major importance for our efforts to help propel work and career success for neurodivergent people like myself and other people with disabilities. I’m a big believer that well-aligned accommodations and supports can drive and enhance performance in the workplace and for on-the-job learning, which is also called on-the-job training, and related instruction for inclusive apprenticeships. Pivotally, HR leaders should ensure that workers can request work accommodations and supports which are tailored to fit their unique life situations and address major challenges. By tailored, I mean personalizing supports to help address specific barriers and challenges and boost strengths. Some common examples of accommodations and supports for many neurodivergent people include flexible schedules, expanded telework, executive coaching and job coaching and mentoring, workplace trainings on neurodiversity at work, team supports and assistance, workplace navigators, positive feedback and direct clear job instructions can also help support success. Accessible technology can likewise play a key role for success for neurodivergent people.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:43.29] Thank you for these examples for us, Scott. I think this is incredibly helpful. You mentioned the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA, so I wanted to talk about accommodations and ask you about maybe how accommodations are different for people in apprenticeships versus permanent employees.
Scott Robertson: [00:10:01.83] That is another great question. So, apprenticeship differs from permanent work in three key ways. First, registered apprenticeship programs must include both on the job learning, which is again also known as on the job training, and related instruction in a classroom setting, which could be a virtual classroom, an in-person classroom or some hybrid of the two. And this context means that apprentices with disabilities may need accommodations and supports for both the workplace and the classroom. So that means supports should focus on work and learning and helping ensure full access and inclusion. Second, apprenticeship programs frequently last about one to two years or sometimes a few years at most, although apprentices with disabilities can request adjustments for the timeframe as needed. This often reflects an accommodation that may be helpful for some apprentices. Apprentices may need supports for apprenticeship programs. They may often be shorter than their time in permanent jobs, especially if they end up having jobs in their career pathways that last longer than one to two years or a few years. And three, apprentices are trainee workers, so they may likely have the chance to explore accessing supports in their apprenticeship programs that can help boost their long-term success in permanent work. So, by exploring, I mean, sometimes trying out supports that can and accommodations that may address specific challenges they’re encountering while they’re on their apprenticeship, that they can get familiarity with those supports and accommodations. And so, when they request them, for instance in permanent work, it’s something they’re used to having already when they’re doing those work duties.
Break: [00:11:45.96] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrill and you are listening to the Workology podcast sponsored by Upskill HR and ACE the HR Exam, two courses that we offer for HR certification and recertification through Workology. Today we are talking with Dr. Scott Robertson. He’s the Senior Policy Advisor at the Office of Disability Employment at the U.S. Department of Labor. This podcast is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. Before we get back to the podcast, I want to hear from you. Please text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. Ask me questions, leave comments, and make suggestions for future guests. This is my community text number and I want to hear from you.
Break: [00:12:32.10] This episode of the Workology podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high-growth, high-demand jobs.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:09.06] All incredibly helpful. Really, this is a great conversation. One of the things I want to make sure that we focus on is something called the Job Accommodation Network or JAN. I’m going to link to this resource in the show notes, but can you tell us, what is the Job Accommodation Network?
Scott Robertson: [00:13:27.69] Yeah, definitely. So, the Job Accommodation Network, we call it JAN for short, JAN capital letters, is a program funded by us here at ODEP, The Office of Disability Employment Policy again, and its website is AskJAN.org, again AskJANn.org. And JAN offers free expert and confidential guidance and assistance for workers and career seekers with disabilities, employers and all others. This is your taxpayer dollars already at work here with, with JAN and other programs and resources that we have here at the U.S. Department of Labor and specialists at JAN can help identify, brainstorm and consider work supports and accommodations to help drive success. JAN has specialists who focus on different types of disabilities. By different types I mean cognitive and neurological disabilities, such as, in my case, my autism, and as well as sensory, physical and mobility disabilities. And other types, for instance, include mental health conditions. So, every different type of disability you could imagine, JAN has specialists who can provide, again, assistance for exploring what accommodations and supports can help that person to address challenges. And its website also has an A to Z of many common disabilities, including, for instance, health conditions and other types of disabilities that I mentioned and examples of common accommodations that can help support access for workers, career seekers and job seekers with disabilities. And I highly recommend that workers and career seekers in the public and private sectors connect with JAN. I have personal experience with JAN myself as they helped me identify crucial supports for my success in federal employment when I started here at the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:25.39] I’m just going to reiterate that if you are a new manager or new to HR or not familiar with the accommodation process and what that looks like, JAN is a valuable resource. In fact, it should be the first place you go to, to really get the support and information that you need to be able to provide an accommodation. Or, if you’re an employee who wants more information on how accommodations work or what they might look like for you. What would you like employers to know about the importance of hiring neurodivergent people?
Scott Robertson: [00:16:02.38] So, I like to emphasize a strengths-based perspective. So, I think that employers should know that neurodivergent people like myself bring key strengths, talents, skills, knowledge, and abilities that can help enhance work and the workplace. Plus, employers can drive efforts to recruit, hire, retain and advance neurodivergent people like me to tap these assets and adopt enhanced work supports and accommodations. Working with industry intermediaries and providers of services can help support this goal. Frequently, enhanced work supports that help neurodivergent people like me to thrive can also benefit all workers at businesses and agencies. For instance, all workers can gain from receiving access to positive feedback, direct clear instruction, and flexible schedules. This context means that supports that help empower neurodivergent people like me at work can help drive inclusive design, universal design, and universal design for learning.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:04.67] One thing I’d just like to reiterate is neurodivergence is really an invisible disability or, I like to think of it as a superpower in a way, and that I am also included among that group. You just have different skills and experiences or ways of looking and hiring somebody who is neurodivergent can be a real asset to your entire organization. How do apprenticeships support career development for neurodivergent individuals?
Scott Robertson: [00:17:35.80] That is another great, great question, Jessica. I like always to emphasize careers, not just jobs, but careers and career pathways for folks. It is something that comes up a lot from folks with disabilities who emphasize that we all want inclusive access to careers in addition to jobs as far as our pathways for life success and economic well-being. Apprenticeships can play a key role to help ensure career seekers, including people with disabilities, can sharpen their skills and hone their talents to help prepare for work success. In this respect, apprenticeship programs complement other crucial systems for education, such as instruction at two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Many neurodivergent people may often find the concrete nature of on-the-job learning, again it’s also called on-the-job training, and related instruction for apprenticeships to be quite valuable. The nature of these programs may align quite well with how many neurodivergent people may atypically think, learn and perceive the world. Apprenticeships can offer down to earth, real-world skills enhancement for jobs that fits their career interests and goals and also sometimes frequently relates to the pastimes or hobbies of many neurodivergent people.
Scott Robertson: [00:18:53.05] I believe apprenticeship programs can also match up well with any courses taken in career and technical education or similar areas in high school or beyond. Some neurodivergent people find that these career and technical education or CTE courses in high school help propel their success. CTE programs can connect well to apprenticeships. Also, apprenticeships offer a crucial advantage for neurodivergent people for their life course. Namely, they can attain credentials such as certifications and certificates that can help support their long-term success and job retention. Frequently, many neurodivergent people find it sometimes more straightforward to attain jobs but not retain them. And I think, by having those credentials, that helps a lot. Having that boost as far as on your resume helps with that retention for the jobs and having that portfolio of skills honed for apprenticeship support success, especially for folks where we think and learn and process information atypically and perceive the world differently, that can make a great difference in helping to spotlight again the strengths and talents for neurodivergent people, including folks who go for apprenticeship programs.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:09.64] I think HR people are hopefully pretty familiar with things like certifications and they might be surprised to know, hopefully they aren’t, but the SHRM Foundation also has an HR apprenticeship program which allows individuals through like a one or two year program like you’re describing, be able to get HR experience and be able to test for their SHRM CP certification. So, apprenticeships are not just for cybersecurity or construction, but they’re for a lot of different industries and include apprenticeships for human resources professionals too. Scott, can you share some information about projects or programs that you’re working on right now?
Scott Robertson: [00:20:58.73] Yeah, sure. And I also want to note, by the way, that we have partnered previously, for instance, and collaborated with organizations like the Society for Human Resource Management and its Foundation. So, I’m glad that you noted that when we were emphasizing the focus on how to help support information resources for HR professionals. So, I first want to note that listeners should connect with our apprenticeship resources for PIA, again the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, at inclusiveapprenticeship.org. This project website continuously releases new resources for intermediaries, employers, apprenticeships and other shareholders who are interested in this focus on inclusive apprenticeships to drive career pathways for folks. And I next want to shift to discussing the core projects that we have at the Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP, that relate directly to neurodiversity at work. So, ODEP runs a technical assistance center for employers called EARN or, capital letters, EARN, askearn.org and the Earn website offers a neurodiversity in the workplace guide for private and public sector employers and their service providers. This guide emphasizes the advantages of supporting neurodiversity at work. It describes how to foster neurodiversity at work and support inclusive talent pipelines when employers recruit, hire, retain and advance their workforces. It also describes key examples of neurodiversity at work programs in industry and here in the federal government. And that obviously is expanding over time.
Scott Robertson: [00:22:33.71] And we aim to add to that information posted in that neurodiversity workplace guide over time as we learn more about this space in helping foster neurodiversity in the workplace. I would also like to highlight our project again on research support services for employment of young adults on the autism spectrum. Again, it is REYAAS for short, REYAAS, that I mentioned earlier in passing. This project has produced key findings and themes already for key approaches, supports, strategies, as well as challenges and barriers that autistic people experience. And it has done so by examining the research literature and running listening sessions. It has conducted these listening sessions with shareholders with an interest in this focus, including autistic youth and young adults, employers, service providers, policy makers and advocates. Their input and the broader project, so the broader REYAAS project, help inform, shape and enhance ODEP’s efforts to advance national policies and practices not only for autism, but also neurodiversity at work as a whole. So, it does have key implications for how we can drive success on neurodiversity at work, including for connecting with employers and what policies and practices can support and, and information resources can support and drive that home and implications for key areas that connect to this, such as what we’re talking about today for inclusive apprenticeships.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:06.72] Well, Scott, so many great resources. We will make sure to include these in the show notes so you can head on over to the show notes over at Workology.com and access all the goods, the goodies that we’ve been talking about, not to mention a link to Neurodiversity Celebration Week. So, you can learn more about what this week is all about, more about the, more about ODEP as well as PIA and AskJAN, so many good resources. Scott, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today on the Workology podcast.
Scott Robertson: [00:24:39.93] Thank you for having me today. And I also invite others, one other website, just to mention before we sign off is the website for the Office of Disability Employment Policy is dol.gov/agencies/ODEP and again that will be available in the podcast show notes. Thank you.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:24:58.14] Amazing. Thanks again, Scott.
Closing: [00:25:00.30] The subject of neurodiversity, being neurodiverse, accommodations is such an important area of focus for HR professionals, especially given the number of people in the workforce who are in fact neurodivergent. When we talk about DEIA, we tend to focus on race or gender. But it is crucial that inclusion and accessibility conversations include people with disabilities as well. I appreciate Scott for sharing his expertise and all the resources, so many great resources with us today.
Closing: [00:25:37.02] I also want to hear from you. Text the word podcast to (512) 548-3005. Ask me questions, leave comments, make suggestions for future guests and future topics. This is my community text number. I do not think that we talk about these topics often enough, which is why I continue to do this podcast. It’s important to talk to members of our workforce, outside of our businesses and frankly, it’s something we should be doing more of, connecting and learning and getting comfortable with other people outside of our organizations to help introduce us to new ideas, new people and new programs, like apprenticeships, are so important. These are such a great way to work with new talent pools and drive qualified and engaged new employees to our workplaces. I appreciate PIA powering this podcast and our podcast sponsor Workology’s courses, Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. Have a fantastic day.