Hollywood's Inclusion Efforts Must Include Neurodiversity (Guest Column)

A man views the Hollywood sign from a walkway at a Hollywood shopping mall - Getty - H 2019

Entertainment Industry Foundation CEO Nicole Sexton outlines a new program that aims to "motivate employers to hire, support and promote inclusive workforces and engage the public to advocate for equality."

No group has been more vocal about the issues of diversity, inclusion and parity than the entertainment community.

But nowhere in our conversations have we acknowledged the 6.5 million people in the U.S. with autism, intellectual and developmental differences — even though an astonishing 81 percent of adults with such challenges have no paid jobs.

Companies that employ people with neuro differences see real business benefits, including better morale and improved products, according to the Harvard Business Review.

We’ve seen this up close in Hollywood. As a child, Curt Harper was diagnosed with autism. He became a competitive surfer and a mentor in the community, as documented in the award-winning short film Curt. He joined the William Morris Agency more than two decades ago and is now a respected member of WME’s mailroom staff.

Curt joined the agency through the Best Buddies program, which creates employment opportunities for individuals like him.

Best Buddies also has helped us at the Entertainment Industry Foundation find our dynamic receptionist, Caley Versfelt. Caley, who was born with Down syndrome, is a motivational speaker and has served as a World Games Messenger for Special Olympics and is a Best Buddies Ambassador. A firm believer in following your dreams, she has worked in entertainment for 15 years, performing on stage and TV, as well as behind the scenes. When Best Buddies recommended her as our receptionist, I was won over by her welcoming spirit and passion for the industry. I hired her immediately.

Despite success stories like these, the unemployment rate for people with intellectual and developmental differences is shockingly high in the entertainment business.

Because of that, EIF, which connects Hollywood with different philanthropies, is now joining forces with Best Buddies, Autism Speaks and Special Olympics to launch a major initiative, following our other initiatives such as Stand Up to Cancer, Music for Relief and I Am a Voter and our fire relief fund. 

Our new campaign, DELIVERING JOBS, aims to equip “neurodiverse” men and women with the resources they need to enter the workforce and succeed there. It will also motivate employers to hire, support and promote inclusive workforces and engage the public to advocate for equality.

At DeliveringJobs.org, candidates can find information such as guidance on writing résumés, resources for finding a job coach, and transportation planning. For HR personnel, we offer management tools for working with people with neuro differences, networks to source qualified job candidates and success trackers.

In our industry, several leading producers have already made positive moves. Shows such as Atypical, Born This Way, The A Word, This Is Us and Young Sheldon have shown the beauty and truth — without minimizing the challenges — of neurodiversity.

We’ve found heroes like Brian Burk, an aerospace engineering student with autism, who competed on American Ninja Warrior; and Kodi Lee, the latest winner of America’s Got Talent, who was diagnosed with autism at an early age; and Zack Gottsagen, co-star of The Peanut Butter Falcon.

But many hiring managers still fail to act. And that’s what we’re about to change. Working together, we can make leaps and bounds in an area that has never been properly addressed.

Inclusion means everyone. Everyone should have access to employment, and everyone in the entertainment industry should be taking action. But it won’t happen without your help.

Nicole Sexton is the president and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.