People Learn Differently: Helping Neurodistinct Employees Reach Their Full Potential

‘Everybody learns differently. And depending on the person, you have to figure out how they learn, how they communicate, what needs to be in their environment and what needs to not be in their environment,’ says 3rd Element Consulting CEO Dawn Sizer.


3rd Element Consulting CEO Dawn Sizer

For Dawn Sizer, co-founder and CEO of solution provider 3rd Element Consulting, being a leader means she’s responsible for finding a way for everyone in her organization to succeed.

“It’s insanely important. It’s the No. 1 priority,” Sizer said. “Where we focus first is on the employee, then the company, and then the client.”

In Sizer’s view, that includes taking the challenges faced by neurodiverse employees—people whose brains process information differently, including those with autism, ADHD and dyslexia—into account.

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The security-focused MSP’s 15-person staff is small but diverse: It is made up of 25 percent women and also includes people of color and neurodistinct employees.

With inclusion in mind, the company built its on-boarding process to account for neurodiversity, Sizer said.

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“Everybody learns differently. And depending on the person, you have to figure out how they learn, how they communicate, what needs to be in their environment and what needs to not be in their environment,” she said. “Once you have that figured out, you can build a plan.”

Making small accommodations, even something as simple as changing a fluorescent light bulb to a softer LED light bulb in an overhead light fixture, can benefit all employees, not just the neurodistinct, Sizer said.

“When you think about it, there are so few costs truly involved in accommodations, especially [if it’s] for a good employee,” she said. “And especially if we’re talking about a light bulb.”

Some executives are working to raise awareness of neurodiversity because of their own experiences.

For Jim Hogan, chief innovation evangelist for Google Cloud and someone who was diagnosed as autistic when he was 7, support from a company means taking steps to see the world from his point of view.

“The problem is there are these societal norms, and whoever wrote them is not autistic. The whole ‘look people in the eye, give a firm handshake, don’t fidget’—[these are] things that neurodistinct individuals struggle with,” he explained.

Many neurodistinct people are looking for an opportunity without being judged by something that doesn’t impact how they do their jobs, Hogan said. That’s why he has helped train hiring managers on what it’s like to interview somebody who’s autistic.

“I don’t need to actually look somebody in the eye to be the most amazing chief innovation evangelist the world has ever seen,” he said. “What we ask for is basically to accept people the way they are.”

In his own case, Hogan has found ways to help colleagues work with him in the most effective way.

“I’ve written a user’s guide to help people interact with me, not because I’m broken but because when you have somebody who’s born this way, as I am, I have to tell people how to get the best out of my time, how to schedule my time and how to interact with me,” he said.

Many industries—IT included—have historically viewed neurodiversity under a disability lens. However, many companies now are incorporating it into their DEI efforts, said Tim Goldstein, Google Cloud global training specialist and neurodiversity evangelist, who identifies as autistic.

“It’s so obvious. When we were trying to get more women into the tech world, we started figuring out why women didn’t stay and then changed things around so it was more conducive to what women needed to make IT a career, but that’s not what was done in the autism space,” he said.

Treating neurodistinct individuals as a culture with different social norms makes it easier to explain and easier for people to understand, Goldstein added.

Amazon Web Services’ Melon Yeshoalul, mother of a neurodistinct child, is passionate about training, mentoring and building up people diagnosed as neurodistinct to help put them on a level playing field.

Everyone is born with a spark, said Melon, AWS’ global general manager of business operations and social impact, during a presentation at the 2023 Women of the Channel Leadership Summit West, produced by CRN parent The Channel Company. But people who face marginalization due to a challenge beyond their control can see their spark dwindle.

AWS seeks to “nurture sparks,” tasking all employees with fostering human potential. Yeshoalul said. This comes in the form of not only awareness of various neurodistinct diagnoses or work styles, but also training and resources.

“Marginalized person, plus technology, plus access, plus training, plus experience, results in full human potential,” she said. “And if somebody can achieve their full human potential, what they’re able to do is participate, be part of a community and also help that community realize its potential.”