When it comes to diversity in the workforce, most people automatically imagine a diversity they can see. Diversity, however, is more than skin deep. Neurodiversity is a term used to describe people within the range of differences of individual brain function and behavioral traits, and it is regarded as part of the normal variation in the human population. It covers people with better known conditions, including ADHD, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as a host of medical and non-medical conditions where a diagnosis isn’t identified, including learning disabilities, memory functions, spatial recognition, and mathematical proficiencies/deficiencies. While it seems obvious that no two brains function alike, what is not so obvious is how those whose brains develop or work differently have different strengths and weaknesses. We tend to overlook neurodiversity, in part because it is not visible or well-represented in most workplaces. Further, dominant workplace cultures often expect assimilation, creating an atmosphere where employees mask their differences to fit in, often creating stress and burnout in the individual and friction in the workplace. Instead of looking at diversity as a checkbox, consider integration, which is a method of adapting toward each other to maximize creativity and innovation from all individuals. Integrating neurodiverse individuals is a priority at Allis Manufacturing Corp., a Milwaukee-based custom contract manufacturer offering machining, fabricating, repair, and assembling services. A Big Tent “Neurodiversity is big tent,” says Peter Rathmann, Allis Manufacturing CEO and owner. Rathmann has a precious incentive to understand the issue. His daughter Emma has Asperger’s Syndrome. She is a high-functioning person who works at a company manufacturing transformers. For her, the key was employment through a temporary agency, which mitigated employer’s concerns about health insurance costs. Now, having become an owner of his own manufacturing company about six years ago, Rathmann is committed to employing and maximizing the effectiveness of high-functioning neurodiverse people in his own company. In addition, he and his daughter have developed a model of integration to share with other manufacturers based on their success. “I inherited two employees that were on the spectrum,” says Rathmann. “I remember being asked by the managers about my plan to direct them because they are ‘difficult to manage.’” Fortunately, these were not the first “difficult” individuals Rathmann knew. Once it was evident how these individuals were motivated, he looked at their roles. By understanding motivation and job requirements, Rathmann then understood how to align operations to support these neurodiverse individuals. One of those individuals, a machinist, has a plan to make the next seven to 10 parts in his head. “However, if something changes and someone tries to insert a different task into his plan without involving him, then you just put a tidal wave in his calm pond,” says Rathmann. “You can better support him — and bypass the agitation — by involving him in the planning. Say, ‘Here’s what we need to do. Here’s when we need to get it done. What do you need from us to help you achieve that goal?’” Rathmann recalls the time a large opportunity came to the company. “Instead of just saying ‘yes’ and then telling the individual to take on the order, we brought him in and told him what the customer wanted and when,” says Rathmann. “We asked him what he thought, told him to come up with a list of tools for the job and the order of operations, and how he wanted the material ordered. We shipped that job on time.” Finding a Fit Eric Gama, a machining apprentice at Allis Manufacturing in Milwaukee, Wis. Here he is learning to operate a manual engine lathe at the Uniquely Abled Academy at Milwaukee Area Technical College, which teaches CNC machining skills to people with autism.While Rathmann recognizes how his employees think, he reminds people that, “individual diagnoses are unique. Everyone sees the world differently. There’s no playbook or manual for engaging with neurodiverse individuals in life or in manufacturing.” Recently, Allis hired 19-year-old Eric Gama as a machining apprentice. Eric is part of the Uniquely Abled Academy, a program that teaches CNC machining skills to people with autism at Milwaukee Area Technical College. In addition to training, the program provides the support structure essential for success, such as reliable transportation to work. To integrate Eric into Allis, Rathmann assigned the task to the four experienced machinists who would be working with Eric. What he did was basically give the entire team a mission and the mandate that there would be no machinist left behind. How the team accomplished that goal was up to them. “Before we met Eric, I thought he would function in kind of a production atmosphere where he would load parts,” says Matt Petersen, one of the Allis Manufacturing machinists who trained Eric. “However, we wanted to see what he could do. On his first day, we handed Eric a print, double checked that he understood the basic control of the milling machine he would be using, and we gave him a chance to see what he could do. I thought there would be a little bit of training in there because every machine is different. However, he picked right up on it and ran with it. He knows how to do his basic machining stuff already, so it’s going good.” Eric is also starting to open up and make jokes, which is a major accomplishment, as people on the spectrum are sometimes hesitant when it comes to interaction. Some take every word literally, so idiomatic expressions and humor can be a challenge. “We’re a very sarcastic bunch over here, so I was a little concerned about how that would go with all the back and forth between the guys,” says Jason Hammersmith. “Now Eric is making jokes back to us and is getting a little more comfortable.” “When you talk about training neurodivergent people, there is a hesitation of how to talk with them and how to manage them. I say we’re going to figure it out and start training a machinist. ‘Analysis paralysis’ is not an option,” says Rathmann. “The hill I’m going to die on is getting kids like Eric into the manufacturing space. He cares about his job, shows up on time, and always does more than expected. As long as you have the internal resources to support a person, as you would when training any new hire, why wouldn’t you want to hire someone like Eric?”
Companies tend to overlook hiring neurodiverse individuals, and as a result they are not well-represented in most workplaces. Allis Manufacturing has embraced the opportunity to hire and train uniquely abled individuals and is committed to integrating neurodiversity at all levels.