“Great minds think alike.” This old adage has been around so long that many of us might accept it as true. But if you pause and think, haven’t many of the world’s most pivotal innovations come about because great minds thought differently?

On April 28 from 6 to 8 p.m., join the Division of Information Technology for Bring Your Own Brain! Celebrating neurodiversity in STEM careers, a webinar featuring a live panel discussion centered on the lived experiences and workplace challenges faced and overcome by five unique individuals.

Neurodiversity affirms that differences related to learning, communication, social interaction, and attention are varied, and should be respected, understood, and celebrated. Neurodivergent individuals, estimated to be among 15 to 20 percent of the population and including those with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other diagnoses of cognitive variance, often have talents and abilities that help them excel in STEM careers. We all benefit when the creativity, analytical skills, and complex problem-solving abilities of everyone on our teams are allowed full expression.

However, for neurodivergent people, as for many other underrepresented groups, standard recruitment and onboarding practices leave much to be desired. Neurodivergent individuals face barriers at all levels of the career journey, from how jobs are advertised, to the conventional "all-or-nothing" interview process, to inflexible working environments. Neurodiversity is often an invisible disability, and employers in turn may misunderstand or make false assumptions about neurodivergent candidates. Day-to-day workplace interactions can be stressful, especially when there is unspoken pressure to conform or to hide aspects of one’s identity.  

This creates a talent gap, with neurodivergent individuals facing disproportionately high unemployment rates despite their skills, and employers struggling to fill highly skilled positions in the science and technology sectors. Through the webinar, the Division of IT and the panel aim to emphasize the value of building a greater understanding of the benefits of neurodiversity in STEM fields.

“Diversity of thought is something that benefits every field of endeavor,” said Angela Correa, director of communications for the Division of Information Technology. “If we work to understand ourselves and our collaborators and recognize their strengths as well as our own, we can take that understanding and use it to challenge old assumptions and biases. That’s what this event will be about; I’m really pleased to be bringing this panel together.”

“This event is a continuation of the Division of Information Technology’s engagement with the university community to learn about and discuss all forms of diversity,” said Scott Midkiff, vice president for information technology and chief information officer. “I look forward to learning more about neurodiversity and the opportunities that we have to better support neurodiverse employees and potential employees.”

The Bring Your Own Brain panel includes five neurodivergent individuals in various stages of their careers: Caroline Connell, who manages support and documentation for Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies at Virginia Tech; Sam Farmer, an author and computer consultant from Easton, Massachusetts; Johnathan Flowers, visiting assistant professor of philosophy at Worcester State University; and Rua Williams, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Graphics Technology at Purdue University. Carolyn Phillips, co-director of the Center for Inclusive Design and Innovation at Georgia Tech and director and principal investigator of Tools for Life, Georgia’s Assistive Technology Act Program, will moderate the panel.

In addition to sharing the experiences and perspectives of the panelists, the panel will also discuss the barriers that neurodivergent individuals face, and steps that educators and employers can take to create a more inclusive, accessible, and supportive working environment.

Connell said, “I sometimes struggle to understand my environment and others struggle to understand me. I handle those situations on a personal basis. This panel gives me the opportunity to explain my perspective to a broader audience for the first time.”

Flowers added, “I am looking forward to having a conversation about neurodiversity and STEM, specifically as it intersects with race. Even if neurodiverse people have similar diagnoses, how our neurodiversity is made visible — and the choice to make it visible — is affected by the other ways we are 'seen' in the workplace. Given the ways that non-white people with disabilities struggle with multiple forms of marginalization, I think it is important to highlight how these structures work in STEM and how we can address this.”

Employers are beginning to rethink their approach to recruitment and hiring to attract and retain neurodiverse employees, recognizing that neurodiversity catalyzes innovation. A growing number of tech companies, including Microsoft and Dell, have implemented autism hiring programs intended to create a culture that allows all employees to reach their full potential, while also breaking down barriers to understanding and collaboration among their workforce. 

However, there is still a lot of work to do. When asked what they hope this event will achieve, a few panelists shared their thoughts. 

“I hope the event will open a space for further conversation about neurodiversity in the STEM workplace, not simply for greater accommodation, but for greater understanding of the experiences of neurodiverse people as they participate in STEM,” Flowers said. 

Connell added, “Neurodiverse people often face assumptions and ignorance about how they approach the world. I hope this event can help educate neurotypical folks and eliminate stereotypes.” 

And, in Farmer’s words, “If this event manages to foster a greater understanding of the challenges involved in being neurodiverse in a primarily neurotypical world, and if it convinces other neurodiverse individuals who face these and similar challenges that they are not alone, then it will have succeeded.”

The webinar is open to everyone who is interested in improving their understanding of neurodiversity in the workplace and society. Plan to join on April 28 at 6 p.m. For additional details, and to register, visit https://it.vt.edu/neurodiversity. If you have questions or need accommodations for accessibility, please contact event coordinator Angela Correa (acorrea@vt.edu).