MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Martinsburg native Morgan McCardell was recently interviewed by CBS in a special covering some of the pilot program she was involved with at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency where she uses her talents in a unique way.
The pilot program increases opportunities for neurodiverse individuals, including those on the autism spectrum.
Diagnosed with autism later in life after having her son, McCardell said that her son was diagnosed when he was young. She had a desire to know every way that she could help him be successful and live his best life, so she did a lot of research on autism.
“During that research, I found a lot of things that seemed to fit with me, and that made me think. I spoke with my mom about what I was like when I was younger, and I found out that my son and I were actually very similar,” McCardell explained.
Before being formally tested and receiving diagnosis, McCardell said that she struggled a lot.
“The hardest part was knowing that I was different but not knowing why,” she said. “I always felt that I perceived life and expressed myself a little bit differently than my peers. I have always been labeled as intelligent but eccentric for as long as I can remember. It was difficult to make friends in school. I struggled in a classroom setting because of the sensory challenges that I had, the noise, the bright lights. That is a disaster situation for someone who is autistic — I came home at the end of the day after school so exhausted, and I wasn’t doing very well academically. Once I received the diagnosis, it led to a lot of really great things.”
Understanding herself and her son better were among the many benefits of McCardell receiving her official diagnosis. She began receiving support academically during her time at college at West Virginia University.
“I ended up graduating from WVU with top honors and got a couple of awards. I even received a scholarship to study abroad,” McCardell explained.
McCardell was one who received WVU’s highest student honor, the Order of Augusta, and was also recognized as one of the WVU Foundation’s Outstanding Seniors during her time as a Mountaineer.
She said that it was her son, Gabriel, who inspired and motivated her to continue striving for her best in hopes of helping others with autism like her son and herself.
“Another great thing about it is with my son and I both being autistic, we have a very special connection,” she said. “In a lot of ways, we are different, but in a lot of ways, we are exactly the same — we experience the world in a similar way.”
Later, McCardell was chosen to be a part of the Neurodiverse Federal Workforce Pilot program.
“Through that program, I went through a six-month externship, which helped prepare me for a career with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,” she said. “Fortunately, I did well and was offered a permanent position with the agency as a geospatial analyst. One of my favorite parts about my job is knowing it has a real impact.”
“It really feels like, for the first time, I’m getting to use the strengths that I have,” said McCardell in the special with CBS.
Childhood autism diagnoses have more than doubled since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job, according to Autism Speaks.
“Sometimes, I can do what it would take somebody a week to do in a couple of hours,” McCardell explained in the special. “That’s the advantage to being able to hyper-focus.”
Former NGA Deputy Director Dr. Stacey Dixon said in a press release when the pilot first launched in December 2019: “NGA mission success is contingent on a world-class workforce with a wide diversity of opinions and expertise. Neurodiverse talent can bring new perspectives to the NGA workforce and make important contributions to the mission.”
Dixon, who now serves as the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, continued in the release to explain that this program is one that creates a learning opportunity for NGA.
“It allows us to demonstrate that neurodiverse talent adds significant value to the geospatial-intelligence tradecraft and helps the agency better support its existing neurodiverse employees,” Dixon continued. “In addition to increasing career opportunities within the federal government for people on the autism spectrum, a historically underemployed population, the effort will also create a playbook to help other federal agencies recruit and support neurodiverse talent.”
In the CBS special, McCardell said that the pilot program and her position at NGA have changed her life forever.
“I would like to make it known that autistic individuals are assets. There is a huge problem with autistic adults facing unemployment or underemployment. There are so many of us out there with degrees who never get the opportunity to use them,” McCardell said. “NGA solved the opportunity to use those skills that come naturally to a lot of people with autism, such as pattern recognition and the ability to hyperfocus — they are paving the way for other government entities to recognize these strengths.”
McCardell is driven by a love of her son and a passion for helping others with mental and physical disabilities. She said that if she could share one piece of advice, it would be to never limit yourself.
“Don’t underestimate yourself, and don’t let anyone underestimate you — you can do anything and you might need the right support to do it, but you can do anything you want to,” she said.
To watch the CBS special featuring Morgan McCardell, visit https://www.cbsnews.com/news/spy-agency-utilizes-unique-skills-of-autistic-analysts/.
For more information about NGA, visit www.nga.mil.