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Neurodiversity and Leadership Tom Edwards TEDxVillanova

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

People on the Autism spectrum are an example of people denied full participation in our society because they do not "fit in" in one way of another. Organizational leaders can be part of the solution by embracing a puzzle-building model of leadership to benefit both the organizations that they lead as well as those struggling to fit in. You won't want to miss Tom Edwards' inspiring and practical talk, where he explores the true meaning of effective and inclusive leadership. Tom Edwards is an alumnus of Villanova University and a current professor and department chair at Temple University for their engineering, technology, and management program. Tom pursues organizational innovation from the three perspectives of research, practical application, and teaching. He is an engineer, a former industry executive, a college professor, and an "Autism Dad". Tom began to apply management principles to the leadership of employees on the autism spectrum in 2015 when he developed a workshop for industry practitioners looking to build a body of practical knowledge to overcome the complete lack of research on this topic.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at


Tom Edwards 0:21

Most of us assume many roles in our lives. I'm an engineer. I was a corporate executive for many years. Now I'm a university management professor. But above all, I'm a dad. And I am what some may call an autism dad, meaning one of my children is on the autism spectrum. One survey of parents with children on the spectrum found that 70% of us worry about how our children will achieve adult independence and lead full lives. And many parents with children on the spectrum myself included, value the uniqueness of our children and see them as gifts to the world. A society more accepting of autism in the workplace, could both address this concern for adult independence, and empower our children to contribute their gifts to the world. This is a challenge I'm going to ask you to undertake. I'm also going to offer some help in meeting that challenge. Several years ago, all of these roles of my life converged in having a discussion with a family member about his difficulties at work. It occurred to me that this bright young man was having trouble with his supervisor, because his supervisor had no idea how to manage someone on the autism spectrum. And it occurred to me, this is part of the why. This is why there is such a high unemployment rate among people with autism. unskilled supervisors have no confidence in their ability to lead team members with autism. So they simply avoid the uncomfortable situation. They don't hire people with autism. And I thought, well, this is something I can fix, I can make a contribution here. And I set out to do so my goal was to build a workshop that would help supervisors and managers understand how to change their approach so they could more effectively lead team members with autism. I was pursuing a doctorate in management at the time. So I went to the University Library to learn everything that we knew about effective leadership of employees with autism. This didn't take very long, I found nothing. Zero. This had not been researched. There's been some progress since then, but nowhere near enough. Well, it would seem that my idea of a workshop to help supervisors learn to effectively lead team members with autism was dead in the water. There's no research to base it on. But I can be pretty stubborn. And what does a good chief engineer do when faced with a problem? But there's no data? We guess? Well, no, we don't guess we develop an informed hypotheses and look for ways to test that hypotheses. Yeah, we call that a scientific guess. My search for this informed hypotheses led me to the work of autism researcher Francesca hoppy, who argues that the autistic mind is often characterized by deep specific skills, like innovative thinking, or attention to detail and repetitive tasks. But that these deep specific skills are often combined with weak central coherence, or difficulty in getting the gist of a situation. This is the key to connecting what we know about the practice of management to the challenges of effectively leading team members with autism. I held robust discussions with my graduate management students about what techniques simply assume that the employee gets the gist of the situation. Any approach with this assumption baked into it is likely to fail when applied to an employee with autism. The supervisor will use a flawed technique and when it doesn't work, assume that the employee is flawed rather than their management approach. I believe this is a big part of the why why people with autism have such difficulty being successful at the workplace. Based on this insight, I developed my workshop on how managers and supervisors could use common tools like delegation, and accountability to more effectively lead team members with autism. And then one of my students gave me an amazing opportunity to test the workshop. She was the executive director of via of the Lehigh Valley, an agency that works with people with autism. She made her entire staff If available to test the workshop, the workshop passed the rigorous scrutiny of this experienced group of people, ultimately giving me the confidence that I had made in connecting this concept of Francesca hoppas. To the challenge of effectively leading team members with autism, this insight and workshop is also the basis of the class and leadership in neuro diversity that I developed for my students at Temple University College of Engineering. And it is the basis of the offer that I will make to you before we're done here today. By some estimates, 85% of people with autism are unemployed or underemployed. Despite any value that they might bring to the table, it doesn't matter. If they have earned a college degree, it doesn't matter if they've earned a sought after college degree, like computer science, they are excluded from our economic life, because they are almost hardwired to think differently than most of us. They are excluded even though these differences can be shown to be valuable to employers. Let me put this in perspective. This 85% unemployment rate is equivalent to three times the entire workforce of the city of Philadelphia. So from the top of the Comcast tower, to every hit neighborhood hoagie shop, for every person with a job, there's three sitting at home, just in the US, not worldwide. They're denied the independence and the dignity that comes from employment, even though they're willing and often able to make a contribution.

Tom Edwards 6:46

This is not only unfair to people with autism, this is a profound waste of human potential. But recall that I'm coming at this, not just as a dad, but from the perspective of organizational leadership. So as organizational leaders, why is this our problem? Why do we care? Obviously, as family members as community members as neighbors, we care. But as organizational leaders, don't we have a responsibility to deliver results for shareholders, or pursue our social mission for the nonprofit people who fund us? Or be good stewards of tuition money entrusted to us by students and their families? So as organizational leaders, why is this our problem? I asked you to consider the compelling story of john elder Robison. If you ever get the opportunity to read one of John's books, or better yet, hear him speak, I would recommend that you do so. JOHN is a very talented engineer who invented some amazing engineering projects, like the first circuit capable of digitizing a human voice. Yet john left the engineering profession, because he was afraid that people would discover that he was not a real engineer. JOHN dropped out of school in ninth grade. JOHN is on the autism spectrum, Asperger's or an aspie. As john calls it, john had difficulty making eye contact, reading social cues, everything that would make life very difficult in the ninth grade. But John's parents were faculty at a local university. So even though he dropped out of school, he was able to sneak into the engineering laboratories at night, where he taught himself electrical engineering. Let that sink in for a second. He taught himself electrical engineering, and then went on to invent some pretty impressive engineering projects. Yet john left the engineering profession, because he never finished his formal education, because he didn't feel as though he fit in. I run a program at Temple University College of Engineering that helps prepare technical professionals to grow into leadership roles. I make sure my students understand the challenges and the opportunities of leading people with autism. I make sure that my students hear the story of john elder Robeson. And then I posed the question to them. If you ran the engineering department, what would you have done to keep john from leaving your company? Just last semester, one students said, I would have done whatever it took. And she was absolutely correct.

Tom Edwards 9:36

Well, what about you?

Tom Edwards 9:38

What would you do it to keep john from leaving your company if you work there? I'll tell you what I would do. If I was president of that company. I would have told all of you neurotypical managers and employees, that if john leaves, and maybe walks down the street to the competition, because you didn't find a way for him to fit in, then you have a problem with me. You may be leaving the company also. A few minutes ago, I posed the question is organizational leaders? Why is this our problem? The story of john elder Robison demonstrates it's not our problem, it's our opportunity. It's an opportunity to make our organizations and ourselves more successful by empowering people with autism, to make their contribution to their employers, and to society as a whole. My first project as a chief engineer, was a very complex US Navy project that required, among many other things, a computer simulation of a flying vehicle. Now, the individual that could do this simulation was the first person that I ever worked with with autism. Although I didn't really understand it back then.

Tom Edwards 10:55

Let's call him Bill.

Tom Edwards 10:57

Bill had many characteristics that today, I might recognize as potentially being autistic, he didn't make eye contact, kept to himself, he preferred to work late at night when management wasn't around to bother him. You know, actually, I did understand that one. And frankly, I was a little jealous. One of the other engineers on my team must have had some personal experience with autism. Because he insisted that he managed the communication between bill and myself, rather than having me do it. This is a little out of the ordinary. And frankly, I was very hesitant to do this, I was chief engineer, was my responsibility to make sure that everything was working in sync. But this normally quiet engineer, dug his heels in and insisted that he managed this communication. So I agree. Now, I watched these communications from a distance. And I'm not sure exactly what this fella did. But I believe that he knew from personal experience, what Francesca hoppy later proved through research, they Bill had deep specific skills, but needed more help than most and understanding the gist of the situation. Bill was very comfortable with these conversations. Bill did a great job. Bill made a critical contribution to this project, a contribution I could have never made personally. So I benefited enormously from a very small modification to my leadership approach, a modification that let bill find a way to comfortably fit in to make his contribution to the project and to the company. The first time I told this story, a listener told me that I had treated the person with autism differently. And that that was wrong. I suspect she was concerned that I was othering. Bill. I have to admit, this was a different perspective for me. Now, when someone criticizes my thinking, I tried to take it seriously. I internalize it, I examine it, I tried to determine the validity of the criticism. This usually takes five, maybe 10 seconds, and then I can counter attack. But seriously, I did reflect on this constructive criticism about the development of my leadership style. And this was a watershed moment in the development of my personal leadership style. I was being told by people whom I respected that now that I was chief engineer. My job was to give orders and chew people out. I was really uncomfortable with this. I was completely dependent on my team for my personal success, barking out orders and yelling at people who knew more than I did seem very risky. Eventually, I figured out that what I had to do wasn't to boss people around. He was to find a way for everyone to work together. I had to manage the interfaces between both the subsystems and the personalities of the project. This was more difficult than I thought it would be. For instance, one of my team members was very risk averse. His inclination was to ask for so many of the project resources to minimize his subsystem risk that it would have put the other subsystems at risk. Now, I could have just told him, I could have ordered them to take the risk. I was the chief engineer, but that would have alienated him from the project. So instead, I worked with him. I worked with him to find ways to minimize the risk to his subsystem without monopolizing the project resources. I worked with him so that he was confident in taking the risk that I needed him to take. There was another manager, who was very, very concerned about the political ramifications on him personally. If the cost mandated testing methodology were to fail. I had to find a way to give him political cover to get him on board with the project. And as I reflected on this, I realized that almost everybody on this team had some barrier that prevented them from fully committing to this project. And I had to take an action to remove each of these barriers. So as I reflected on these incidents, where my intervention was required, it occurred to me that the criticism I had received about treating the person with autism differently, was an accurate criticism. I did treat him differently. And I treated the people without autism differently. I treated everyone differently, so that I could remove the individual barriers that kept each and every team member from fully committing to the project.

Tom Edwards 15:55

And as I thought about this, I realized that I had not been given a team where everyone just naturally fit in, I did not have the round peg for the round hole, I did not have the square peg for the square hole. You know what, I've never had that team. In fact, I don't think that team even exists. What I had to work with was a team of real people. And real people can be like puzzle pieces. Everyone, not just people with autism, having them have amazing abilities that are combined with their own individual idiosyncrasies and rough edges. If everyone cannot fit in, and make their own unique and valuable contribution, the quality of the overall picture will suffer. So the job of a leader is like building a puzzle, find a way for everyone to fit in and make their valuable and unique contribution to the quality of the overall picture. I said earlier that I was going to make an offer and issue a challenge. This is a university. There's many people here engaged with the training and education of the next generation of leaders. I would argue that if the next generation of leaders understands the opportunity and the challenges of effectively leading team members with autism, this 85% unemployment rate will evaporate. My students at Temple University College of Engineering, understand the challenge and understand the opportunity, please contact me, I will make all of my teaching material available to you the teaching material, it's based on the workshop that I built based on Francesca hoppy his concept of weak central coherence combined with deep specific skills. Use this material, make sure your students understand the challenge and the opportunity make sure that they're prepared for it. That's my offer. All in all, the picture that is emerging is that effective leadership of people with autism is simply effective leadership for everyone. But my personal experience, and research at places like Microsoft indicates that when we get better at leading people with autism, we get better at leading everyone. So my challenge to everyone in a leadership position to everyone who aspires to a leadership position. Embrace your role as a puzzle builder. Find a way for everyone to fit in and make their unique and valuable contribution. Make your organizations and yourselves more successful and help change the world for people on the autism spectrum. And for everyone else who doesn't fit in. Thank you.

Transcribed by


Resources Mentioned in Ted Talk

Autism - cognitive deficient or cognitive style
Download PDF • 194KB

Beautiful minds, wasted _ The Economist-1
Download PDF • 49KB

Evaluating Factors of Autistic Hiring through Ajzen's TPB
Download PDF • 408KB

Leadership and Neurodiversity - TVE
Download PDF • 692KB

HBR - Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage
Download PDF • 4.89MB

Download PDF • 523KB

Parr Hunter Ligon - Questioning universal applicability of TXL - examining employees with
Download • 263KB

Parr and Hunter - Enhancing work outcomes of employees
Download PDF • 114KB

The Dandelion Principle
Download PDF • 635KB


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