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Among the 3,100 analysts, linguists, mathematicians and other experts working at the CSE are many who self-identify as neurodiverse.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

They are Canada’s code breakers, working in secret to thwart terrorist threats, cyberattacks and the devious ways of foreign spy agencies.

In a sleek, modernist building in Ottawa, the Communications Security Establishment decodes, translates and analyzes intercepted communications, protecting Canada from espionage, extremism, cybercrime and hacking.

Among the 3,100 analysts, linguists, mathematicians and other experts working at the CSE are many who self-identify as neurodiverse. They include people on the autism spectrum, as well as people with dyspraxia, dyslexia and other neurological conditions that were once thought of as impairments, but are now increasingly known as “neurodifferences” – cognitive variations with advantages and drawbacks.

Amy, whose last name The Globe and Mail is withholding for security reasons, has worked on classified material at the CSE for some time. She would not say exactly how long, or what her top-secret work involves, but she was happy to discuss her learning disability diagnosis, and her leadership of the CSE’s neurodiversity affinity group.

That group is one of a number of initiatives the signals agency has put in place to support its many neurodivergent employees, and to ensure the intelligence environment is welcoming to gifted new recruits.

“I was diagnosed quite young as neurodiverse myself,” she explained. “The way mine presents is a little sprinkle of the common ones we hear … it doesn’t really have a name. I have difficulties with patterns and spatial reasoning.”

Amy said working at the agency among neurodivergent colleagues, and leading the affinity group, has shifted her perspective.

“I don’t really see this as a disability, as I do have strengths and I do think differently and I can bring things to the table,” she said. “So I don’t call it a learning disability any more. I call it a learning difference.”

Amy said the affinity group is a “big umbrella,” covering the autism spectrum, dyslexia, brain injuries and learning differences.

It’s part support group, part advisory body. And its members – Amy says there are a couple dozen of them – are helping the intelligence agency frame policies helpful to neurodiverse employees, including by creating a new guide, which will be distributed within weeks.

The document will offer advice on opening dialogues with neurodiverse people, who sometimes have difficulty with social interactions, and ensuring the correct language is used when speaking with them.

After the affinity group was established, Amy said, some long-established employees recognized that they shared characteristics with neurodivergent colleagues and began identifying themselves that way.

The electronic spy agency already educates its work force about certain common sensitivities among neurodiverse people, including discomfort with persistent eye contact and public speaking.

“We encourage our employees to be clear, concise, avoid metaphors, euphemisms, or sarcasm as this can be misinterpreted by some neurodivergent individuals,” said Evan Koronewski, a CSE spokesperson.

The agency has adjusted its employee assessment tools so that those who aren’t adept at communication, or who feel uncomfortable speaking in public or making eye contact, are not penalized in performance reviews. And it is ahead of other government departments in framing special accommodations for people on the autism spectrum in its equity and inclusion policy.

The CSE has consulted with GCHQ, its sister electronic spy agency in Britain, which developed a neurodiversity policy years ago, and is also speaking to other Five Eyes intelligence agencies about their policies. The Five Eyes is an intelligence alliance of Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Amy’s affinity group has helped the CSE bring in adaptations. Autistic employees are often sensitive to noise and other distractions. They are offered corner desks and other accommodations to help them focus on their highly detailed work and, like other employees, get noise-cancelling headphones.

“They don’t want to hear the kettle boiling,” Amy said.

Artur Wilczynski, who recently retired from his role as assistant deputy minister and senior adviser for people, equity, diversity and inclusion at the CSE, explained that analyzing intercepted communications and thwarting online threats requires deep concentration, attention to detail and the ability to spot connections and patterns that most people would miss.

In an interview, he was keen to avoid the “rain man” stereotype, which is based on the autistic-savant character in the film of the same name.

“The perception that all individuals who might be on the spectrum are particularly talented with mathematics or computer science can be a bit of a stereotype that puts some expectation on their performance that is also not necessarily fair,” Mr. Wilczynski said.

Although many neurodiverse people do have math and computer skills, he added, they perform “a broad range of tasks” at the CSE and “bring a lot to the table.”

There is “a large cohort of individuals within the organization who are neurodiverse,” he said, and the CSE is encouraging more to self-identify.

According to Mr. Wilczynski, the CSE’s accommodations for neurodiversity will also extend to recruitment of the next generation of cyberspies. “If we are going to be trying to recruit in those professional domains that have a higher representation of neurodiverse persons, then we have to communicate effectively with potential candidates from those communities,” he said.

Among the types of experts the agency is currently looking for are cryptographers, mathematicians versed in probability theory, foreign-language intelligence analysts and people who know how to debug computer networks.

The aim, Mr. Wilczynski said, is to create a welcoming environment for neurodivergent recruits – although he admits the system is still in development and “not perfect.”

“In some of my interactions outside of CSE, where I met individuals who self-identify as neurodivergent, they asked, ‘If I come in will I be supported? Will the organization understand my particular challenges?’ And I think that we are trying to do that.”

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