Neurodiversity in the GIS Workplace

During the plenary session at the GIS-Pro & CalGIS 2018 conference in Palm Springs, California, Esri president Jack Dangermond inspired the audience with vivid descriptions of the big-picture purpose of the GIS profession and GIS professionals’ role in what’s next for the world. He endorsed the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA) as a champion in successful GIS implementation, noting that it sets the vision for understanding the mission, provides leadership to geospatial professionals, and creates opportunities for collaboration within—and outside—the geospatial community. At the conclusion of his speech, Dangermond challenged the audience to use its collective success in applying GIS to help create and inspire what’s next.

No pressure, right?

Still very much inspired on my trip home, I had plenty of time to reflect on all this. In considering where this transformative technology could be most impactful for many people, I decided that the intersection of neurodiversity and geospatial technology was what’s next.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines neurodiversity as “the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits, regarded as the part of normal variation in the human population (used especially in the context of autistic spectrum disorders).” While the focus of this article is on high-cognitive autism and similar profiles, it should be noted that neurodiversity includes all types of brain differences, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette’s syndrome, dyslexia, and dyscalculia.

An Attractive Field for a Growing Population

In a 2018 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that the prevalence of autism in the United States is estimated at 1 in 59 births. The Autism Society of America reports that more than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder. The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders also increased by 6 to 15 percent each year from 2002 to 2010, according to biennial numbers from the CDC.

Thus, most people probably know neurodivergent individuals. They may already be in your workplace, or, if not, they likely will be soon.

Augmented reality (AR) tools, like AuGeo from Esri Labs, are a great way to help neurodivergent people lessen the anxiety they might feel when trying to navigate around town.

The geospatial field can be very attractive to neurodivergent job seekers who process visual information much more easily than aural information, want concrete work with tangible outcomes, and prefer limited social interaction with other professionals who are known for looking at people and data in unique and powerful ways. Additionally, more than guiding a career choice, geospatial technology has the potential to be the tools needed to help neurodivergent people change the world in ways that are important. Just as it is best practice to include an experienced utilities subject matter expert on utility projects, it is important to have neurodivergent people shepherd the development of solutions that support their own lives and livelihoods. When included, these individuals often provide a much-needed new perspective that takes projects and/or products to the next level.

Inspiringly, large corporations, such as Microsoft, SAP, and Dell, are showing that they understand the power of neurodiversity by not only hiring neurodivergent employees but also by taking the lead in manifesting just how valuable the neurodivergent population is to business success. This positive and transformational trend has the potential to expand in the geospatial technology arena.

To get started, organizations just need to implement a few measures to create what’s next for neurodiversity in the GIS workplace.

First, a Cultural Shift

Before diving into technical solutions, workplaces need to institute cultural shifts to successfully integrate inclusive practices into their workspaces and workflows. A few examples of how to do this include the following:

Ready for Geospatial Solutions

After a culture shift, which includes gaining a deeper understanding of neurodiversity and how to partner with neurodivergent professionals, organizations can then work on creating technical solutions.

So What’s Next for You?

Geospatial technology holds the key to what’s next for a very transformative and growing neurodivergent population. Are you inspired to help create what’s next?

Managing GIS, a column of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA)

About the author

Kathryn Brewer

Kathryn Brewer, GISP, is a partner at Spatial Relationships, LLC, and has more than 20 years of experience leading change in the geospatial technology field. She currently serves on the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association's (URISA) Board of Directors and as board liaison to the Pro-Equity Anti-Racism (PEAR) committee and the GIS for Equity and Social Justice workgroup. While working diligently in the geospatial technology field, Brewer is bridging her professional and personal lives by championing neurodiversity in many areas, including the workplace. Her goal is to lead—and be—the change needed to create workplaces where neurodivergent individuals are not only welcome but sought after as well for their expertise and unique perspectives.