Unlocking Potential

By Caroline Mroz

Intern Hax’s path to Northrop Grumman is a bit of a funny story.

“Other people from my school sent out over a hundred internship applications, got an interview with five companies and an offer from three,” said Hax. “I sent out one application, I got one interview and I got one offer.”

For Hax, this is funny because, as of May 2022, he hadn’t yet submitted any internship applications — but when a friend shared an internship pilot program at Northrop Grumman’s Baltimore, Maryland, site targeted to neurodiverse candidates, his interest was piqued.

A Different Way to Work

A rising third-year student at the University of Maryland studying computer science, Hax identifies as neurodiverse. For Hax, who has both ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder) and autism, tasks which require a high level of planning, multi-tasking and focused attention can be challenging, including the internship application process.

“Those abstract tasks just don’t resonate with me in the same way they do for a ‘neurotypical’ person; it feels almost like there isn’t really an end goal there,” said Hax.

Hax also communicates in a frank, highly technical manner, as is characteristic of many neurodiverse people, who are often technically inclined and detail oriented.

“We say everything in as few words as possible to convey as much meaning as we can,” he said. Hax explained that this can make the traditional, multi-round interview process feel like jumping through hoops.

Northrop Grumman software engineer and former intern Tyler — who has several neurodiverse family members, including a twin sister with Asperger’s — agreed that job search processes often aren’t conducive to success for neurodiverse candidates. She served as a mentor in the pilot.

“A program like this is really important, because a lot of the greatest engineers and minds throughout history have been people who are neurodivergent in some form.”

— Hax, program intern

“I know that people who are neurodiverse are more than capable of getting the job done,” said Tyler. “In general, people work differently, and we need to be understanding of how anybody, neurodiverse or not, works best.”

Meeting the Need

Northrop Grumman Talent Acquisition Manager Luke Mann also recognized this, and it frustrated him — in addition to not being as inclusive as we could be, it meant Northrop Grumman was potentially missing out on talent.

“I’ve wanted to stand up a neurodiversity hiring program for years,” said Luke.

With the program’s executive sponsor, Human Resources Vice President Beth Pitts-Madonna, and NGCare Manager Debbie Edwards, he spent a year researching what environment they would need to create for neurodiverse candidates to be successful, partnering with the Howard County Autism Society and the Maryland Department of Disabilities, as well as meeting with other companies that have successful neurodiversity programs.

The pilot program was designed to provide neurodiverse candidates with opportunities to make a real-world impact. Interns were matched with employee mentors to provide support, and the program’s application process was designed to have a straightforward approach to better set neurodiverse candidates up for success.

A Place to Thrive

Matt Cunningham, a Northrop Grumman intern manager who participated in the pilot, said he learned a lot from the program, and not just about managing neurodiverse employees. This experience was a reminder that all employees — regardless of their neurodiversity — thrive when they’re working in an environment where they feel empowered to contribute their best work.

“This program is about focusing on providing the coaching people need in order to maximize their potential; it’s an opportunity for us to learn about growth, development and coaching of employees across the board,” said Matt. “Neurodiversity is a good microcosm to study, but the lessons should be applied everywhere.”

As the company’s Baltimore team looks to the program’s future, they’re excited for its growth, both at their campus and beyond.

“A program like this is really important, because a lot of the greatest engineers and minds throughout history have been people who are neurodivergent in some form,” said Hax, who is continuing to intern with Northrop Grumman through the fall. “There are a large number of very talented STEM majors who are neurodiverse, but, often, we’ll get left behind by the hiring process.”

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