I/DD Topics & Trends with Lawrence Fung

Lawrence Fung, Neurodiversity Trends in Companies & Jobs

What does neurodiversity mean?

Lawrence: Neurodiversity you can look at the word as two parts. So we all know about diversity and we also know neuro means the brain. So basically like other diversity that you all know of like gender diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, it is really about thinking that a diverse population with people of different backgrounds will have different perspectives. This will enhance the organization and the society because of the different kinds of perspectives that people can contribute. When you enter the brain piece on diversity it’s only even more because all our ideas come from our brain. So basically neurodiversity is how we regard the differences in our brain. The brain functions, our behavior and recognizing that as a part of normal variation of ours, of the human population. So when we’re talking about neurodiverse conditions we often refer to conditions such as autism, dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but it doesn’t really stop there. It also includes other psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety as well as neurological conditions like epilepsy or tourette’s syndrome, movement disorders etc. That kind of gives us the sense of what is the scope of neurodiverse conditions and what neurodiversity means. A lot of the time when we are thinking about neurodiversity we’re really trying to bring out the concept of the strength based model. So in particular the strength based model of neurodiversity is what we practice in the Stanford Neurodiversity Project.

Can you tell us about the Neurodiversity Project at Stanford?

Lawrence: The Stanford Project has been going on for almost 5 years now. Initially we had a special interest group for neurodiversity that started in 2017. Basically we wanted to know more about every neurodiversity and very quickly it pivoted into a special initiative of the psychiatry department. Thanks to Dr. Laura Roberts, our department chair in psychiatry at Stanford, what it means to make the special interest group into a special initiative of the department. Over the last few years it’s got a lot of traction because I think this is just the right thing to do. We want to embrace diversity and we especially want to embrace the strength of people that can actually contribute a lot to society. So we’ve done that on various different levels and one way of doing it is we have to start from awareness. Without awareness of the beauty of neurodiversity there’s not much else that we can do because it doesn’t really sync in with anyone. We need to have people understand what neurodiversity is and we have done it in various different ways to spread the word. One way is I teach neurodiversity at Stanford, run workshops about neurodiversity and I run high school cam for the highschoolers, I give talks and conversation with youth today. Also the conference at the Stanford University Summit started two years ago and this year is going to be a third year. It’s a virtual conference and last year we had over 5,000 people joining us from all over the world in three days. This year we are also going to have three days of conference from October 23 – 25. So in addition to getting people together to learn the value of neurodiversity, we actually start doing practical service in terms of supporting our own students at Stanford who are neurodiverse and with a specialized program, a mentoring program. We also help autistic individuals in particular find work as well as sustained employment. We are focusing on autism and there are various different reasons. One is that our funding agency supports autism. The other reason is 80% of people in the autism spectrum are unemployed or underemployed and it’s not because they cannot do the work. It is because they are not very good at interacting with people socially. Your neurotypical world, the world that’s built these days, it’s really for people that like social interactions. People on the autism spectrum sometimes when interacting with people in a different way, it’s not like it’s good or not good. It’s that they interact very differently. They sometimes get misunderstood and sometimes even dismissed really early. A lot of the time people like to use their first like two minutes of impression. Someone told me that they know in the first two minutes if they want to hire that person.That’s exactly what we cannot do because it should not be correct, it should not be fair to just rely on first impressions because people can be very talented and if you don’t talk to the person or really try to assess more value in their background you’re dismissing someone that maybe can be the most productive person that can contribute to your organization. So basically we want to make sure that we level the playing field. We have this neurodiversity at work program that’s designed to level the playing field by teaching the employers how to do their interviews, how to really understand the background of people on the spectrum and how to really continue to work with them. So we train the employers in the recruitment phase as well as after the neurodiverse employees start work. On the other hand we also support autistic job seekers at all the different phases and support them before and after they get a job so I’ll be happy to talk more about all of this. The gist is we know what is failing the brilliant autistic people and we basically would want to take all of those obstacles away by doing things a little bit differently.

Can you talk a little bit more about the program and who you partner with? Are there some observable benefits in terms of quality life or retention rate? Can you talk about the benefits you’ve seen?

Lawrence: Over the last few years we have worked with many departments within Stanford like the Hoover institution and various departments in the school of medicine. Soon other parts of the University as well a number of individuals that are in the midst of on boarding and they are in other parts of the University. They are doing various different jobs. We have the very first I mean other than our own university, we also work with other organizations like Google, DPR construction, Rangam and even smaller organizations like animal sanctuary, architecture firms, chocolate retail store you name it. We work with many different organizations and it is important because autistic individuals and neurodiverse individuals have so many different talents that they can have. We have individuals that are very good with animals and they got a job in an animal sanctuary. We got someone that has a really big background in finance and they can work as a financial analyst in a midsize company. We also have programmers, we have people that are really good in understanding the library system and they want to work in the library and she’s actually working in the library in our Hoover institution so we are seeing a lot of the different things that they want to do. When we are trying to help our candidates we want to know their strengths and we want to know what they are really good at because someone that is very good at something does not mean that he or she wants to do that. Like someone can be very very good at math but deep down inside they actually just want to do something else that is completely not related to math. Basically we take that into account and we’re trying to get people to get to the places that they want to be. A lot of the time because of that desire of wanting to be in there that can get them to do really really good work. What we have been seeing is that the retention rate is higher and it’s not only for our own experience, it’s also for other organizations’ experience like JP Morgan Chase, SAP, and Microsoft. Those organizations have their own autism at work program, specialized employment program just like the neurodiversity at work program in some fashion but they are focusing on their own company. What they are saying is also that the retention rate is very high and much higher than the rest of the population and they also found and we also found that their productivity is very very high and sometimes even higher than most others and what we also hear over and over again is that sometimes they can be so innovative. In SAP for example there are several stories that are about their employees and in one case one person on the autism spectrum saved $40 million for the organization. Another case an autistic individual got the highest innovation price of the company which was traditionally awarded to a department or a big group so he single-handedly got the prize. So all of those are like really amazing things that we have been seeing from neurodiverse individuals at work especially when they are in a neurodiversity friendly environment and that’s what we are trying to do. The previous narrative will be that when people on the autism spectrum are at work they don’t get enough support and sometimes they get really frustrated and sometimes they quit themselves and sometimes they get misunderstood and then some of them may be dismissed or not given good opportunities. So basically what if the different environment when the organization is wanting the neurodiverse individual to be contributing and they do the necessary accommodations and they do the necessary training to the staff around them the result is just remarkable.

What kind of support have you found that these individuals need before and during the job to be successful?

Lawrence: In order for them to be successful one thing as I mentioned is i’ll say the environment has to be supportive. So what does that mean? It can be very simple things like if someone has some sensory sensitivity and you want to make sure that the sensory sensitivity is not going to distract a person and it’s not going to cost that person pain. In fact some of neurodiverse individuals would be so uncomfortable with the sensory stimulation and the overstimulation that there is not only about not being able to focus like if we go to like an environment with a construction site and it’s very very loud we know that that’s not going to be good for anyone to be working there if they are needing to be focusing on their work. I mean the construction workers it’s a different story they actually have to work there right but for others they won’t be able to tolerate it. So basically understanding a simple as like the environment if it’s too loud, making sure that the individual can be placed to another place that is not going to cause that auditory overstimulation, the sensitivity then that solves part of the problem. So some people would also need to have some kind of understanding on how neurodiverse individuals work so this day and age we are using zoom all the time like what we are using right now but few years ago when people are asking for like working from home it is a big deal and people just like employers just don’t allow that to happen but this flexibility actually is really really helpful because social interactions can be a lot of energy for neurodiverse individuals. If you’re putting them in an environment that is going to just drain them because of all of the stimulation and all the social interactions that they had to go through they cannot really work 100%. If they are able to be allowed to have a flexible way of work like working from home or maybe if they need to take a break during the meeting like all of us deserve to have like a 10 minute break after one hour right but sometimes organizations have like three hour or two hour meetings that are just like very draining especially when there is a lot of interactions. So having that need to be taken care of so maybe the supervisor telling everyone that we are going to take the 10 minute break at the 15 minute mark can actually make a big difference for neurodiverse individuals. A lot of these small things that we think it’s like trivial that can actually be so easily implemented can actually be the things that can get the neurodiverse individuals to work much better and also the other thing is about like how to get the neurodiverse individuals to do the kind of work that they are good at. There’s a concept of job crafting so basically if someone has to do 10 different things, they are all different in nature like maybe someone else to type something, enter data or whatever but on the other hand has to call someone like those are kind of examples. So if there are 10 things that the individual needs to do in the work but only seven things they are able to do well, the other three things maybe that individual is not very good at, like just keep talking with people on the phone, that’s something that is causing a lot of distress. If you actually can take away those three things so that that individual can focus on those 7 things you may be able to ask the person to do more of those seven things and then the person will be 100% productive or more. But if you ask the person to do all the seven things that they are good at and the three things that they don’t want to do because it’s just too much for them you may end up getting them to only 30 % productivity because those three things it’s just making them suffer quite a bit. So by understanding how to give the individual the right kind of task is also one thing that sometimes we are trying to get employers to think about. 

You’ve learned a number of lessons and things that are very useful to employers to consider for their neurodiverse jobs but also for all of their jobs. How do you pass those lessons on?

Lawrence: Yeah so the way we are trying to help employers and the neurodiverse individuals is for like the neurodiverse individuals we try to help them to sustain their self advocacy. That’s really important and because we are not going to be there side-by-side with them for a long time we actually only support them for a discrete period for three months and then they will have to work with the employer to continue to sustain the work. So on one hand we help them with the self advocacy and help them to learn about some good work skills about executive function, about how to interact with people socially and how to manage their emotions sometimes and all of that can be helpful to sustain their work. On the other hand for the employers we basically teach them all of these things. I just talk about any emotion regulation, the work performance, how to give performance evaluation to neurodiverse individuals, executive function, and how to understand the sensory needs and all of that. That can basically prepare them to number one to appreciate what are some of the challenges that they have and on the other hand we also use a strength -based approach to get them to really utilize neurodiverse individual streams and interest so that they can continue to be having a good focus on how to develop their employees. By doing that one thing is to keep the environment neurodiversity friendly. The other thing is to get them to really see what the individual is going to be able to do right off the bat so this way the employers will be very motivated to continue to sustain the neurodiversity friendly environment. 

 You have this three day conference coming up. Tell me a little bit about what will be going on for those three days.

Lawrence: Yeah in those three days we are going basically for this year ‘s theme is on what can you contribute to the neurodiverse community and we think about advocacy, education, the service, as well as the community. We want to make everyone think about how they can contribute in different ways. We are going to have 10 keynote speakers and 18 panels. There are going to be five tracks. One track is employment and actually there’s a subtrack on entrepreneurship or the neurodiverse individuals that want to be entrepreneurs. We think the employment track there are employers that are very successful in their own specialized employment program that talk about their experience working with neurodiverse individuals and then we also have the neurodiverse individuals talk about the career path so that’s the neurodiverse career panel. We also have the second track is mental health and we have expert Stella talking about topics like how to manage and decide for neurodiverse individuals. Another topic is trauma. There’s quite a bit of traumatic experience that neurodiverse individuals experience so we have experts there talking about that. Also the third is about intersectionality and especially about gender diversity. Gender diversity is a big topic within neurodiversity. A third track is K-12 so we always have every year we dedicate at least one hour on K-12 and we have different topics that are led by neurodiverse teenagers as well as the teachers as well as the parents. This year we also have a workshop that is geared towards training some teachers and administrators in K-12 and helping them to understand how to use a strength based approach in K-12 education and also using other methods in education like universal design as well as other design thinking approaches and so forth. The fourth track is higher education. So higher education every year we also have an hour that is dedicated to that. The fifth track is human rights. It’s a new track this year and we are going to have a California Superior Court judge that is specializing in neurodiverse individuals. She’s a family court judge who will be sharing her experience as well as others. Camilla Bixler is going to talk about the experience in training police officers to work with neurodiverse individuals because that’s a big big problem. Sometimes police officers are not taught about how to detect that another individual is neurodiverse and because of that the neurodiverse individual gets miscommunication that they suffer from tremendously so we have a session talking about that as well and many other really excellent topics. Keynote speakers we have a prominent non- speaking individual called DJ ditch. He graduated from college and he’s going to be talking about his advocacy work. We have also an autistic film producer, maybe some of the films that we have seen he has directed, his name is Scott Steindal. We also have an autistic doctor that’s an anesthesiologist who has been very effective in meeting efforts in understanding how autistic doctors work and she promoted a lot of activities in Europe and created an organization called autistic doctors international. You can definitely find something that you would want to hear about.

How would our company build out a neurodiverse program to support inclusivity?

Lawrence: Well send me an email and then I’ll put you on the right path. We talk with organizations all the time on how we can help them to build neuroviersity at work and one prime example is Google. We have trained hundreds of managers over there and have started hiring people and getting people hired at Google and many other companies as well. So happy to chat with you. 

I heard you mention a track in the summit that has some coverage on trauma, please clarify.

Lawrence: It’s been known that neurodiverse individuals over the years have experienced a lot of injustice and a lot of the time it’s traumatic. Some of my patients actually also have PTSD, a true post traumatic stress disorder that really makes that life miserable so for a while we have been wanting to talk about the intersection between trauma or even PTSD in neurodiverse individuals. We’ll have two people, one is a researcher who is Dr. Heather Brown from University of Alberta. She is on the spectrum herself and she’s also a researcher that’s very knowledgeable about trauma and neurodiversity. We also have a therapist and a writer who has been helping neurodiverse individuals with PTSD and other associated problems. They are going to talk about the topic, what it really means and also what they do.

Are other universities expanding their neuro diversity research or is this specific to Stanford?

Lawrence: There are a few universities that are doing a support program for their own neurodiverse students; there are about 82 to 85 that are at least listed and maybe more. Some of them are more specialized, some of them are basically supporting neurodiverse individuals and they recognize that is something that they specifically pay attention to. So not only Stanford is trying to support all students with the needs but to have the full project to support employment, to have our clinic, and do have a summit and so forth and I think we are kind of one of the different ways of doing things. We do things a little bit more comprehensively.

Which trends do you see as the most relevant in regards to neurodiverse employment, work and careers?


Maybe you’re thinking about what the companies do to support neurodiverse individuals like whether or not there are some trends, whether or not there are more, maybe there are more organizations that are wanting to do it. I would say if that’s your question that’s one trend. There’s more organizations that want to do this and another trend that I’m seeing so far is that there are more organizations even at the government that are paying attention to this so this did not happen before so this is kind of like a new trend like the public sector is picking it up and recognizing it as actually important. I also see a trend is that a lot of the big organizations seem to be able to build their programs up to a certain level and then basically that’s kept stable so their growth was more at the beginning. So that’s kind of what I observed and for a long time what I have been telling a lot of my colleagues in the various industries is that we have to focus on the small companies to midsize companies as well because about 70% of the US workforce is actually working for small to medium size companies. So in order to actually make a difference for the neurodiverse individual as a society we cannot only rely on the big companies. The big companies have to do a lot of work to support as well for sure but we cannot only rely on them. We have to rely on how society can also get the small to medium size companies to do the same. What that means is that the government has to do something. They have to do something that can be making things possible for the small to medium size companies in order to have programs like this.

What percent of your program participants are autistic? What diagnosis do your participants have?

Lawrence: For the neurodiversity at work program as I mentioned because it’s actually funded by Autism Speaks and it’s only focusing on autism. Our overall program, so not only the new diversity at work program but the rest of the project is really more inclusive. We include people with ADHD, dyslexia and other differences. That’s basically what we would like to in the future expand our neurodiversity at work program to other neurodiverse conditions as well but for now we are a little bit limited. In the future we definitely want to cover more bases.

How do you help a loved one find a career they are passionate about when they are neurodiverse?

Lawrence: The most important thing is to remember that someone that has a deep interest in something is going to be more likely to want to do that as a career than maybe their strengths, maybe that’s also possible. Some people are good at something and then they figure that they want to have a career. Basically paying attention to what potential options that can develop your child that’s consistent with their desires, love or passion for that particular special interest. Some people can be very interested in animals for example and there are jobs that are for people that take care of animals so in various different universities there are jobs like that and there are also other positions like national park or Azul. Those are all opportunities and there’s a little bit more specific so it’s going to potentially take a little bit more time. Cultivating the interest and giving opportunities for your children to experience that may be able to establish a path that the child may decide that this is really cool and because of that they get connected with the organization. Maybe initially could be as a volunteer, as an observer but later on maybe getting an internship position and even work there. So the most important thing is to be open minded and give opportunities.

How can people help the neurodiversity project and be in touch?

Lawrence:  If you are interested in our work you can definitely follow us by going to our website or going to our conference and every month we also have a special interest group meeting. We have over 1,000 people in that special interest group now. If you go to our website you can also go to about us and then sign up for the special interest group and then you’re going to get announcements from us all the time when we have new activities. If you do have specific questions for us you can send an email to stanfordneurodiversityproject@stanford.edu.

If you had a magic wand and something could be different overnight especially with all that you’ve been seeing, what would it be?

Lawrence: I definitely would want the world to really embrace neurodiversity. If we truly embrace everyone’s strengths and their differences and we really help each other out to get everyone to be able to have a place on this planet in a fairway I think that would be what I want. I will not need to do what I’m doing right now, maybe something else, maybe my neuroscience work more.