Businesses recognize the need for diversity in the drone industry. In this article, Dawn Zoldi of the Drones at Dawn Podcast and P3Tech Consulting interviews Jason San Souci on the importance of neurodiversity in the workplace.
Neurodiversity is a Super Power Elevating Drone Businesses!
By: Guest Contributor, Dawn Zoldi
Diversity makes businesses more profitable. Research has proven this. When most people think of the term “diversity,” however, they tend to think about traditional classes, protected by law, such as race, gender or religion. Diversity is much more expansive. It includes neurodiversity, a term that sums up variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions and originally referred most commonly as autism. People with ADHD, dyslexia, and other developmental differences are also included in neurodivergent populations. Neurodiversity is a super power that drone businesses would be well served to harness to elevate their performance.
According to Jason San Souci, co-founder of Neurodiversity Works, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that is helping to prepare neurodiverse students for STEM careers in drones, GIS and artificial intelligence, neurodiversity does not equate to disability (or without ability). He explains, “Neurodiversity should be celebrated and respected. While not every neurodivergent child is a child prodigy, well-documented autistic traits show high attention to detail in the area of interest of the child. Asperger himself referred to children with this syndrome as ‘little professors.’ Many children with neurodiversity have genius or high IQ scores, yet these same children end up being chronically unemployed or underemployed.”
The facts bear this out. There is a critical disconnect between the documented potential of neurodivergent individuals and the 80-85% unemployment rates among those individuals. This may be, in part, due to the fact that many programs for neurodiverse individuals drop off around the age of 22. Inspired by his future stepson, Blake, and Blake’s mother, Nicole Corder (also Co-Founder), Jason is now trying to bridge that gap through their not-for-profit while building a bridge to the drone industry.
Neurodiversity in the Drone Industry
Neurodiversity Works’ mission is to prepare neurodiverse students for careers in the drone ecosystem by developing targeted technical training programs, fostering relationships between students and industry mentors, and working with employers to advocate for neurodiversity hiring programs.
The program starts with a Drone Career Exploration Workshop which gives each neurodiverse participant an industry overview, training and educational requirements, current use cases and some familiarity with the tools of the trade. San Souci plans to offer this workshop quarterly through school-based and work-based programs like Teaching the Autism Community Trades (TACT), Alternative Cooperative Education (ACEConnect) a Denver Public Schools CareerConnect program and others.
Participants over the age of 16 will have a chance to earn their FAA Part 107 certification and become licensed commercial drone pilots. To that end, the non-profit helps them enroll in a small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) Ground School for Part 107 preparation. Neurodiversity Works’ strategically partners in this endeavor with the Drone Pilot Ground School and the Unmanned Safety Institute, depending on the participants’ learning accommodations.
Other businesses and organizations have also jumped on board including ACEConnect at Denver Public Schools, helping students explore careers in the drone industry and the NDGiFTS Movement, helping to find mentors and plan workshops. The vision is that the program will eventually include social-distanced field trips to observe commercial drone operations. Participants will see what a commercial drone operation looks like and interact with the crew. Veteran-owned small business Blue Nose Aerial Imaging and Juniper Unmanned have already agreed to help arrange these field trips with their local crews and to provide internships for participants who earn their Part 107 certification.
Workforce development, wrapped in a community of dignity and respect, remains at the lynchpin of this effort. San Souci elaborates, “We believe that maintaining dignity within the neurodiverse community is at the heart of everything that we do. We provide an environment that allows students to develop their interests, express themselves creatively, and develop relationships with industry mentors while giving them the knowledge and skills to work in many industries. Our program contributes to impactful changes for our neurodiverse students including: decreased social isolation, improved psychological health, wellbeing, and quality of life, the ability to live more independent lives, a higher rate of positive employment and educational achievement, strengthened social structures and transferable skills to many industries.”
Drone Pilot, Podcaster, and Neurodiversity Pro
If anyone should know about how to transfer skills to improve businesses, it’s Jason. He hosts two podcasts, “The Secrets of the Innovator” and “Do You Know Drones?” and has been remote sensing and GIS scientist for 18 years. Jason brings his wealth of experience as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Certified GIS and Neurodiversity Professional, FAA Certified and AUVSI TOP Remote Pilot, Level 3 Thermography to bear on these collaborative efforts.
Yet no one succeeds alone. And so he recognizes, “This effort will take a village.” For this reason, he created mentorship opportunities to expand the network of support beyond just businesses. Individuals with a heart for leadership, education and workforce development can get involved and make a difference as well.
Neurodiversity Works is starting local and plans to go global, but has already obtained mentors from across the U.S. Overall, the organization is taking the same crawl-walk-run approach that the FAA takes with the drone industry. The program is just getting off the ground. In this crawl phase, the team is primarily working with Denver Public School students. The walk phase will include an expansion throughout the State of Colorado and other states. The team will be running when they reach their global goals. For now, their goal is to reach 100 students in the Denver Metropolitan Area by the end of 2021.
And that’s a great start for infusing the drone industry with superpowered talent!
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the Department of the Air Force. She is an internationally recognized expert on unmanned aircraft system law and policy, the Law-Tech Connect columnist for Inside Unmanned Systems magazine, a recipient of the Woman to Watch in UAS (Leadership) Award 2019, and the CEO of P3 Tech Consulting LLC. For more information, visit her website at: https://www.p3techconsulting.com.
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