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Research Questions

  1. What benefits (e.g., specific skills, aptitudes, advantages) do people with neurodivergence bring to national security organizations?
  2. What are the challenges in recruiting, working with, and managing a neurodiverse workforce?
  3. What barriers might exist in national security workplaces (e.g., in hiring, obtaining a security clearance, and onboarding; performance review processes; promotion and management; retention) that prevent agencies from realizing the benefits of neurodiversity?

National security organizations need highly skilled and intellectually creative individuals who are eager to apply their talents to address the nation's most pressing challenges. In public and private discussions, officials and experts addressed the need for neurodiversity in the national security community. They described missions that are too important and too difficult to be left to those who use their brains only in typical ways.

Neurodivergent is an umbrella term that covers a variety of cognitive diagnoses, including (but not exclusive to) autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, dyscalculia, and Tourette's syndrome. Neurodivergent individuals are already part of the national security workforce.

The purpose of this report is to understand the benefits that people with neurodivergence bring to national security; the challenges in recruiting, working with, and managing a neurodiverse workforce; and the barriers in national security workplaces that prevent agencies from realizing the full benefits of neurodiversity. To carry out this research, the authors conducted a review of primary, secondary, and commercial literature; they conducted semistructured interviews and held discussions with government officials, researchers and advocates for the interests of neurodivergent populations, and representatives from large organizations that have neurodiversity employment programs; and they synthesized findings from across these tasks to describe the complex landscape for neurodiversity in large organizations in general and in national security specifically.

Key Findings

Neurodiversity, like other forms of diversity, can strengthen a national security organization

  • Common strengths among the neurodivergent population include pattern recognition, analysis, visualization, problem-solving, memory, and achieving a state of hyperfocus to complete a project—skills that can be beneficial in many fields of interest to national security.

Within the U.S. government, neurodivergent diagnoses are treated as a disability.

  • Requiring employees to identify as disabled benefits those with severe needs while stigmatizing employees who have spent decades overcoming the challenges of workplaces designed for neurotypical workers.

The current size of the neurodivergent population in the U.S. national security community is unknown.

  • Government reporting does not distinguish different causes of disability, resulting in all disabilities being lumped together. As a result of this practice, along with the tendency for some employees to choose not to be categorized as disabled, the true size of the neurodivergent population employed in the national security community is unknowable at the time of this study.

Several aspects of the recruitment and hiring process can pose barriers to a neurodiverse workforce

  • Such barriers include unclear or confusing job descriptions, complex application processes, common approaches for job interviews, and the security clearance process.

Once on board, neurodivergent employees can face challenges navigating careers in workplaces that were not designed with them in mind

  • These challenges include sensory overload, rigid and tightly packed schedules, unspoken social mores, unclear career progression paths, and lack of clarity in instruction.

Recommendations

  • Provide all employees equally with accommodations that mitigate the effects of sensory stimulation. These accommodations might include (1) the ability to select one's desk location or to change or remove light bulbs to reduce brightness, (2) access to noise-canceling headphones, and (3) periods of minimal or no interruptions.
  • Modify job vacancies and hiring practices to attract neurodivergent candidates. Changes to hiring practices could include using concrete, jargon-free language in job descriptions, eliminating unnecessary "requirements," and updating the interview process to align with practices from other organizations that recruit neurodivergent candidates.
  • Help all employees understand neurodiversity. Opportunities to build understanding include inviting experts to present on the topic of neurodiversity, requiring empathy and psychological safety training for managers, and supporting agency affinity groups that are not tied to disability.
  • Support systemic change across the organization. This might include incorporating neurodivergent people into major policy decisions, making changes to the security clearance process, examining military recruitment processes that can exclude qualified candidates, and revising policies that limit deployment and overseas travel for neurodivergent individuals.

This research was conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI), a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense intelligence enterprise. This research was made possible by NDRI exploratory research funding that was provided through the FFRDC contract and approved by NDRI's primary sponsor.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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