Brigitte Custer, CGI Federal

Brigitte Custer

Vice President, Consulting Expert

April is National Autism Acceptance Month, which holds a special appeal for me.  Autism, now more properly called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), manifests in several ways, many of which affect interpersonal interactions. A person on the spectrum might not speak, or might fixate their attention on one thing and talk about nothing else for hours, for example.   

An underemployed population

According to Cyberseek, there were 162,700 job openings for Information Security Analysts from October 2020 through September 2021, and not nearly enough qualified applicants to fill them. Couple that with an additional 435,067 job openings requesting cybersecurity-related skills, and you see the makings of a workforce crisis.

At the same time, an estimated 80% of adults with ASD are unemployed or underemployed. These overlooked innovators represent a rich source of technical, creative and analytical talent.

What if we could leverage these two problems to solve each other?  Looking for innovative answers, I reached out to Melwood in 2019 and started working with them in my former role as a chief technology officer at my previous employer.

Melwood is a non-profit organization in Washington D.C., dedicated to helping people with disabilities find opportunities for work. Over the years, I have developed my relationship with Melwood and look forward to continuing that partnership here at CGI.

The social demands of a workplace can be difficult for people on the spectrum to navigate. Holding conversations and responding to social cues are not easy for some with ASD, which can cause some neurotypical co-workers and managers to label these individuals. Employers also often to fail to make necessary accommodations for the success of neurodiverse employees.  Unfortunately, individuals with disabilities often stay silent about their needs for fear of being labeled.  If organizations are not creating inclusive environments, secrecy reigns and neither employees nor organizations can reach their full potential.

In reality, people on the spectrum are well-suited for certain types of work. What might be perceived as problems, such as obsessive attention or repetitive behaviors, can translate into exacting attention to detail and pattern recognition. 

Another standout quality of employees with ASD is their incredibly high productivity rate. In fact, neurodiverse software teams are up to 30% more productive than neurotypical teams. This is directly because of the traits mentioned above—high attention to detail, excellent concentration and persistence. While a neurotypical individual might quit a difficult task, individuals with autism are more willing to persist until it’s perfect. 

The U.S. government launched its Neurodiverse Federal Workforce pilot program in January 2021. A joint project between the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), MITRE and Melwood, this initiative brought several neurodivergent interns to NGA, where they worked in geospatial and imagery analysis roles.
After the six-month internship, and security clearance processing, many of the interns joined NGA full time.  

The mission of Melwood’s AbilIT program is to prepare neurodivergent people for employment within the cyber industry. The other side of that equation is that industry and the government are learning more about ASD, and what autism is and is not. I have been an advocate for AbilIT graduates and learned how to integrate them into positions where they could thrive. I hope to build out a similar initiative at CGI Federal. 

My current role is strategy, innovation alignment and mission enablement in support of the various business units across CGI Federal. But I’m also helping to redefine the talent pipeline to be more inclusive to neurodivergent individuals, as well as infusing this diversity directly into service delivery models that drive true mission value for our customers. Right now, there is a lot of white space and opportunity out there that I’m hoping to help fill. 

It starts with education

An aspirational goal of the partnership with Melwood is to build a STEM camp for neurodivergent individuals and expand the STEM@CGI program. Our nationwide STEM@CGI program exists to introduce, inspire and mentor students studying science and technology to help increase diversity and inclusion in the IT industry. It also aligns with our Disability and Neurodiverse Advocates (DNA) Member Resource Group’s mission of creating an environment that enables disability and neurodiversity inclusion and equity by championing accessibility and company practices that empower all members to achieve their goals.

Making workplaces friendlier to neurodivergent persons isn’t just about identifying and recruiting talent—it is an indispensable aspect of the solution. It is more deeply about nurturing talent, beginning early, while concurrently, building workplace environments that help them thrive and create opportunities for other members to learn from them. Technical training is important, but building an inclusive environment into the workplace culture is the other side of it. 

A personal passion

My teenage son is neurodivergent and has measurable learning disabilities. Therefore, I am acutely aware of the difficulties people like him, who appear “different,” can encounter in school, at work and in social settings. 

My son had months of occupational therapy and years of speech therapy well before he started kindergarten. But he embraced school with enthusiasm. He had a supportive network of teachers and an individual education program (IEP) that tailored his classes to his divergence in learning—using different methods of instruction and providing him with an environment free of distractions at test time. 

He gradually overcame many of his limitations during primary school, motivated by a keen desire to “be like everyone else,” and often told me, “If I have a good teacher, I can do it.”  

He graduated high school with a 3.7 GPA, and his future looked bright. However, things began to unravel in college. High school had provided structure and a team of educators to help him, but the world presents a very different landscape, starting at the collegiate level. Success as a neurodivergent adult depends on the ability to advocate for oneself and to initiate the social interactions that build a helping network. That’s a tall order for someone who begins far behind the starting line. 

For the moment, my son has halted college and he is trying to plan his next move. He works a part-time job, but the future looks less promising. He is attuned to those around him and how they withdraw or make fun when they see he is “different.” Success for him is self-respect, feeling competent and belonging. But he doesn’t trust that an employer will take the measures necessary to allow him to thrive. He has many aspirational goals, but with every opportunity he pursues, he encounters another reminder of what he cannot do.

Programs like Melwood’s AbilIT give me hope that the workplace might be more welcoming of neurodivergent people by the time my son is trying to launch a career. The program is working toward the same goal; it taps into the unique abilities and aptitude that high-functioning people with ASD can bring to the table. 

This is why I am an advocate in creating environments to accommodate neurodivergent individuals in the workplace. By enabling change and creating a successful model that other companies can emulate, I hope to enrich the ecosystem so that more individuals with a disability feel there is an organization out there fully committed to supporting them.

We may be a more enlightened society regarding neurodiversity than we used to be, but there is still a stigma associated with having a disability. Did you know that 80% of all disabilities are acquired between the ages of 16 and 64?  It’s crucial, then, to remember that anyone could become a person with a disability at any time; there is no “us” and “them.” Together, we must overcome that cultural stereotype. 

It seems like a long road ahead to make those social changes, and in many ways it is. If we don’t, though, we risk missing out on the future contributions of some truly smart and talented people, like my son. 

Read more member experiences in the Life At CGI blog series
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About this author

Brigitte Custer, CGI Federal

Brigitte Custer

Vice President, Consulting Expert

Brigitte Custer leads strategy, innovation, and mission enablement initiatives for the Space and Intelligence Sector within CGI Federal.