Cybersecurity Internships for Neurodiverse Individuals at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Published January 22, 2021

Adults on the autism spectrum are too-often un- or underemployed. A new hiring initiative from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) will train neurodiverse individuals in cyber work through geospatial- and imagery-analysis internships. This program will seek to address two problems at once: underemployment in the autism community and the need for more cybersecurity professionals in the United States.

"NGA mission success is contingent on a world-class workforce with a wide diversity of opinions and expertise. Neurodiverse talent can bring new perspectives to the NGA workforce and make important contributions to the mission," NGA Deputy Director Dr. Stacey Dixon said in a press release.

NGA’s partners in the endeavor include Melwood, a nonprofit providing jobs and opportunities for people of differing abilities, and the MITRE Corporation, a research and development nonprofit. All three organizations are headquartered or have branches in Northern Virginia. The original idea for this program came from MITRE. It entered a proposal for a "Federal Neurodiversity Cyber Workforce" in a GEAR (Government Effectiveness Advanced Research) Challenge, and was a grand prize winner in 2019.

How neurodiverse people can help U.S. security

A 2017 report by the cybersecurity professional organization (ISC)2 estimated that, globally, there will be a shortfall of about 1.8 million cyber professionals by 2022. Cybersecurity personnel can help address an array of cyber risks and challenges the U.S. faces, including within the realms of elections, personal data, health care, and infrastructure.

NGA works in the geospatial branch of cyber intelligence, partnering with and supporting first responders, policymakers, warfighters, and intelligence professionals. It defines itself as both a combat support and intelligence agency.

According to a blog by James Cook and Teresa Thomas of MITRE, the nonprofit which came up with the idea for the new workforce pilot, "Many individuals on the autism spectrum have skills and aptitudes well suited to cyber work. These skills include attention to detail, problem-solving, analytical skills, and out-of-the-box thinking."

Neurodiverse people are underemployed

About 58% of young adults on the autism spectrum work for pay in a setting outside of their homes between high school and their early 20s, a 2015 report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute (PDF) found. The authors state this rate is "far lower than young adults with other types of disabilities." The "services cliff," wherein many individuals lose access to supportive services upon leaving high school, is cited as a major contributor to lack of employment for some neurodiverse young people.

This research also highlights that beginning employment early in life can have a big impact for people on the spectrum; around 90% of these youth who had paid roles in high school also had a paid job in their early 20s. In contrast, only about 40% who did not work for pay during high school went on to do so in their 20s.

As for any person, employment can be an important source of security, connection, and meaning for those with autism. "Employment provides an important link to financial independence, health insurance, benefits, and social relationships," the authors state.

Connecting neurodiverse people to the federal cyber workspace

NGA’s pilot employment program will involve an intensive one-week training and interviews workshop, followed by a six-month internship in geospatial and imagery analysis. According to the blog by the MITRE team on the project, "colleges and universities will help provide access to a talent pipeline of students on the autism spectrum" who are interested in cyber work. The coordinators of the initiative hope it can be replicated throughout the federal workforce.

"In addition to increasing career opportunities within the federal government for people on the autism spectrum, a historically underemployed population, the effort will also create a playbook to help other federal agencies recruit and support neurodiverse talent," Dixon said.

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