Proven Value: Autism at Work

It takes education and awareness to incorporate neurodivergent employees into the corporate culture, but the payoff is invaluable

December 18, 2023

The idea first came to Marley Day early in 2022, when she noticed electric vehicle (EV) chargers near JPMorgan Chase’s data center in Tempe, AZ, where she works.

“I started doing some research and two weeks later told my cohorts what I learned—that because EVs use public information, there was the potential for hackers to bring down an entire power grid,” explains Day, who is an associate in Agile Services.

Shortly after, the news story broke: EV chargers had been hacked through a backdoor in the control systems, exposing a nationwide vulnerability. 

“As an autistic person, I’m always seeing gaps and risks, and things stay on top of my mind until I can figure them out and turn them over to the appropriate person,” Day says. “Then I can move on.”

No Need to Hide Anymore

When Day joined Chase in 2016, she was exhausted from years of trying to mask the differences that are part of her neurological makeup. “I grew up in rural Texas and my main goal was to stay out of sight, not be put in an institution,” she says. “The stress of that was causing my organs to shut down. I lost my balance, was in constant pain and in a wheelchair for a couple of years and then on crutches.”

In 2017, in a breakroom at work, Day saw a promotion for the JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program and something clicked. “I walked right up to my supervisor and bluntly said, ‘I’m autistic and you’re my mentor,’” Day recalls. “She leaned back and said, ‘I don’t know anything about autism, but I will figure it out.’”

Autism at Work started off as a pilot with a handful of JPMorgan Chase’s Delaware employees on the spectrum in 2015. Today, the program—spanning more than 40 different roles across nine countries and counting—has become a competitive advantage for the company, and an opportunity to enrich its cultural diversity.

Accommodations and Insight

After learning about Autism at Work, Day and her then-supervisor, Becky de Ruiter, joined the Arizona chapter of JPMorgan Chase’s Access Ability Business Resource Group and together learned how to support Day’s comfort and productivity. They learned how to help Day regulate her emotions in response to sensory overload and how to respond appropriately to coworkers.

Over time, this disclosure—the first of her professional life—helped Day lose 100 pounds, improve her personal life and heal from the stress of living in hiding. She also found an outlet as a member of a special task force organized by Roger Bongiovanni, a managing director in JPMorgan Chase’s Structured Interest Rate Risk division, that examines vulnerabilities that could affect the company.

The “Crypto Explorers Think Tank” offers Day—and two other JPMorgan Chase employees who self-identify as being on the autism spectrum—opportunities to collaborate while exploring their skills and abilities. The group came about in early January 2022, when Bongiovanni reached out to Musi Lee, Autism at Work global head, for recommendations. By April, the three-person group had developed a crypto meltdown scenario which, just a few months later, played out in real life almost exactly as they forecasted.

“These individuals bring a lot of knowledge and interest and work relentlessly,” Bongiovanni says. “They’re willing to share thoughts in a straightforward way with intensity and a high level of depth. It’s an incredibly professional group and, because we’re all in different locations, we probably never would have even spoken to one another had this project not come along.”

Meeting Individual Needs for the Benefit of All

Alejandro Lago, an associate in JPMorgan Chase’s Business Intelligence division, began working at JPMorgan Chase in Buenos Aires in 2018, after being trained by a company that helped him learn the skills he’d need to work in a highly competitive environment. His manager, Miguel Andina Silva, Senior Lead Data Engineer, gives him the creative freedom and flexibility that lets him make the most of his need to learn and his ability to hyperfocus.

These needs and abilities, Lago explains, come from a constructive and adaptative place, and they led to his now-patented solution to address a costly technology issue that regularly kept thousands of employees from being able to access their emails.

“People on the spectrum like me have a different way of seeing and processing reality, and managers need to be able to recognize and leverage our strengths,” he says.

As head of the Autism at Work program, Lee emphasizes that—even among people with similar diagnoses—each individual’s abilities and needs are different.

“The onus is on us as a firm to push for neuroinclusion from the start,” she notes. “Education and awareness are vitally important so everyone understands each individual is different — the approaches that work for one may not work for another.”

Making Resources Available Worldwide

Autism at Work provides a playbook, distributed throughout JPMorgan Chase, that shares best practices for recruiting and interviewing neurodivergent individuals. An instructor-led training workshop—currently available in English, Spanish, French, Japanese and Mandarin—details the kinds of supports that are available to both employees who identify as being on the autism spectrum and their managers.

Adam Foley, Global Head of Mainframe Messaging & Integration Engineering in the U.K., turned to Lee when he was given the opportunity to lead a team with a self-identified autistic software engineer in Dallas. After asking Lee what he needed to know to support the engineer’s success, Foley was surprised by how much he was able to learn about reasonable accommodations, communication and the flexibility that would enable him to maximize his team member’s productivity and engagement.

“This colleague loves to be in the weeds with data and has solved problems that would have taken someone else on the team two or three times as long,” Foley says. “As managers, we need to be able to work with diverse people to understand where they’re coming from and support where they’re going.”

Regarding the Crypto Explorers Think Tank team, Bongiovanni has no doubt its participants contribute to one of the firm’s core competencies — early risk identification across lines of business, including critical functions such as technology and risk management. 

But the value of embracing neurodiversity also goes well beyond its bottom line. “These individuals have openly shared what it’s like to have autism in such a large company and that honesty just enhances the culture at JPMorgan Chase, which is so welcoming in this day and age,” says Bongiovanni.

“It’s eye-opening to see the challenges they face,” he continues, explaining that it takes patience, humility and humanity for neuro-typical employees to appreciate the advantages of incorporating neurodivergent individuals into day-to-day work life.

“It can be a learning curve, but the value proposition for both the individual and the team is very sound.”

Bryan Gill, who leads JPMorgan Chase’s Office of Disability Inclusion and oversees its global neurodiversity strategy, agrees. “There’s proven value in tapping different ways of thinking,” he says. “At JPMorgan Chase, we’re only getting started.”

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