County supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved a plan to recruit “neurodivergent” residents, including those on the autism spectrum, to the county workforce.
The proposal, by Supervisors Nathan Fletcher and Terra Lawson-Remer, also calls on county departments to gain the needed skills to interview and train neurodivergent people.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines neurodiversity as “the concept that differences in brain functioning within the human population are normal, and that brain functioning that is not neurotypical should not be stigmatized.”
According to a statement released by Lawson-Remer and Fletcher, autism affects one in 44 Americans and one in 26 California residents, “including tens of thousands of people in San Diego County.”
Current data suggests that 75% of autistic adults are unemployed or under-employed, “and a delayed launch into the workforce for autistic young adults can have lasting negative impacts throughout an individual’s lifetime,” the statement said.
Along with recruitment and better training, the board also directed County Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to give employees the right skills “in order to advance a more inclusive work culture,” according to Fletcher and Lawson-Remer.
Those skills include understanding how neurodivergent or neurotypical people process information and social cues.
A 17-member working group crafted the proposal, in collaboration with the county’s the DiversAbility Employee Resource Group.
Partners included Autism Society San Diego, Autism Tree Project Foundation, National Foundation for Autism Research, San Diego Regional Center and San Diego Workforce Partnership.
Lawson-Remer, whose daughter was diagnosed as autistic last year, thanked advocates and community partners for helping create “a more equitable space for the neurodivergent communities.”
When society excludes people based on such differences, that takes not only a huge toll on them and their families, “it also takes a huge toll on our society.” Lawson-Remer said. “We’ve accepted ‘That’s how it is, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“We’re going to lead by example,” she added. “By doing so, we can show other employers they can do the same.”
Supervisor Jim Desmond said he was happy to support the proposal, adding, “There’s a glowing light of potential for all of us.”
Supervisor Nora Vargas — who was participating in Tuesday’s meeting via teleconference — said she was glad the county is responsible for training, and added programs similar to this one should be a priority.
After the vote, Fletcher said the county “has taken another important step to support neurodivergent and autistic people in San Diego County by building on the success of Jay’s Program.”
Lawson-Remer “is a passionate champion for this issue, and I appreciate the due diligence and leadership she has brought to creating a more inclusive and diverse county government,” Fletcher added.
In 2019, Fletcher introduced Jay’s Program, which provides people with intellectual and developmental disabilities with part-time, six-month paid internships county departments.
Most people speaking during a public comment period lauded recruitment efforts. Brian Lafferty, a county legal support assistant, said at times being the only autistic employee “is exciting and exhausting,” as managers may not always know how to deal someone who may seem too blunt or doesn’t easily laugh.
This proposal “will allow us to thrive,” Lafferty added.
Dustin Tracy, president of Autism Society San Diego, said that as a father of a daughter with autism, the county initiative is important to him personally.
“Our kids are adults much longer than they’re kids,” Tracy said. “Opening that door, starting that process and leading us down that path is so important.”
City News Service contributed to this article.