The Value of Neurodiversity in the Workplace
BY PETER O’NEIL
You can read more of Peter O’Neil’s writing in The Seattle Times, the Washington State Association for Justice’s publication Trial News, and his book, My So-Called Disorder: Autism, Exploding Trucks, and the Big Daddy of Rock and Roll.
For decades, first as a paralegal, then as an attorney, I was the go-to person for facts. I could dig them up, I could force them out, and I could master them. When I was really involved in a case, I never had any doubt that I would know the facts better than anyone else on that case—attorney, expert, or CR 30(b)(6) designee. It’s a good attribute to have as an attorney.
But last year, at age 65, I learned a new fact about myself.
It is a fact that explains nearly everything about my life and career—a unified theory of me.
All my life I have known that I am different, and that I’m often perceived as such. I have a hard time fitting into groups. I can watch as new acquaintances greet me warmly and then pull back when they spot something in my responses or demeanor. I love being surrounded by people I know and trust, but I also need huge quantities of time alone.
I also have crazily intense passions and interests. As a young teenager I “discovered” the sometimes problematic rock and roller Chuck Berry seven years after his last big hit and 16 years after his first. My high school friends were all talking about Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton—performers who learned from my own, older hero. I didn’t give a hoot. I was a fan of Chuck, and never stopped learning or talking about him.
That same passion and intensity followed me into my accidental career as a legal assistant and then lawyer. I could always find the most important documents and sometimes had an almost magical ability to understand a case from the very start—to figure out who did what to whom and why—and to form a strategy for filling in the gaps in discovery. My best work was on a series of 10 or so cases involving a dangerous pickup truck with fuel tanks outside the frame rails. We represented a series of people badly burned or burned to death in post-crash fires involving those pickups, and I put my skills to work unearthing and assembling the story of those trucks one document at a time. I can say without bragging or exaggerating that I knew more about the liability facts of that pickup than any person alive.
My skill with documents was remarkable. I could go through haystacks of paper quickly to find the good stuff. I would find clues in one document that led me to the next, and then would draft a motion to force the other side to produce it. While studying a newly produced document I would remember another, produced to us years before, and it was often the combination of the two that made sense of both. My working life was a series of “aha!” moments that made my opponent’s work a series of “dammit!” moments.
It didn’t end with documents. The trucks I studied were everywhere in those days. I would walk down the street, see one, and study it. Sometimes that meant getting on my knees to look under it. I found subtle changes from year to year that became part of the larger story.
I don’t share any of this simply to brag. I was just one cog in the human machinery that made our cases successes—albeit an important cog. In fact, I became an important hub in a nationwide effort to share information about the pickups. My phone rang constantly, sometimes with a direct referral of a new case to me, the paralegal. I would have to explain that we’d be happy to investigate, but that I came as a package that included the law firm that employed me.
I share this because one of the first things I learned when I began to study what it means to be autistic was that a huge percentage of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can’t find work at all, or are underemployed.
When I learned this I immediately thought of my own career. I have helped earn millions of dollars for my clients, the attorneys and law firms that I’ve been associated with, and even myself—and I did it with an assist from a so-called “disorder.”
There is an expression in the autistic community that if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person. We are all different, and I can only speak for one of us—me.
But I can say this much with absolute confidence: autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have a lot to offer any human enterprise. We bring innovative ways of working, seeing, and understanding. We have persistence and tenacity. We have incredible eyes for detail. We have powerful senses of justice. We have passionate interests, and when those passions can be linked to our work, we are pretty much unstoppable.
We might not be the life of the holiday party or the lunch room. We might not interview the best for a job. We might avoid eye contact or the noisy clatter of some public places. We might speak our minds honestly and bluntly.
But put to work in the proper conditions, with some accommodations for our differences, we can be moneymakers for any law firm or business.
Not all of us might have my knack for facts about defective products. Some might prefer numbers. Some might prefer tech. Some of us are great artists or writers. Another might have a special interest in medicine or legal research. But none of us should be unemployed or underemployed simply because we act or sound a bit different.
My mentor, attorney Paul Whelan, likely didn’t know that I was autistic, but he knew me, and he made a number of small accommodations that made me a more successful and valuable employee. He let me concentrate on the big, fact-intensive cases where my talents were most useful. He gave me space to do my work. He removed some of the smaller tasks that my mind really wasn’t built for and that got in the way of my real work. Later he mentored me through the Washington State Bar Association Rule 6 Law Clerk program, allowing me to become an attorney without doing a thing I wasn’t built for; i.e., going to law school.
If you have an employee who’s smart but a bit different, maybe you can learn what accommodations they might need so that they can thrive in your workspace. If you have an interviewee who doesn’t look you in the eye comfortably, consider that it might not be a character issue. Get to know the person and their strengths. Autistic people often have traits like persistence, an eye for detail, focus, the ability to spot patterns, and the ability to form intense interests that make them extremely valuable in the workplace.
All forms of diversity—gender, racial, ethnic, age—benefit any human endeavor. Diversity brings new eyes, new ears, new skills, and new ways of understanding to any group.
Neurodiversity does the same. Adding neurodiversity to the mix at your office, or accommodating the needs of your neurodivergent colleagues and staff, will bring new ways of seeing, new ways of processing the world, and, just maybe, an improved and more profitable practice.