By John Siegers
These days, I constantly stumble on articles arguing for why we need more women, more Black people or more gay people in tech. The tech industry is too White and too male, these people say. The tech industry needs to be more diverse, these people say. The tech industry is too racist and sexist, these people say.
Whether or not these claims are accurate or not, is beyond the scope of this article. What I want to focus on, here, is a group of people that’s entirely ignored by pretty much everyone: the Autistic community. It is the purpose of this article to explain (1) what Autism really is, (2) why it is underrepresented in the tech industry and (3) why the tech industry needs more Autistic people.
What is Autism?
Psychologists, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists commonly apply a triune model of the brain:
• The Reptilian complex (aka “instinct” aka “the Id”) : where primitive subconscious emotions (such as sadness, anger, fear and happiness) reside and which is correlated to primitive neurochemical algorithms that measure one’s capacity to take care of oneself.
• The Paleomammalian complex (aka “consciousness” aka “the Ego”) : where individual consciousness resides, and which is correlated to defensive, perceptual, intellectual-cognitive, and executive functions.
• The Neomammalian complex (aka “intuition” aka “the Super-ego”) : where collective consciousness resides, and which is highly correlated to the internalization of cultural rules, mainly taught by parents applying their guidance and influence.
In individuals with Autism, the Neomammalian complex does not behave as it normally should, which could have any of a multitude of causes. In essence, that means that Autistic people are lacking what is commonly referred to as a “gut feeling”. People with Autism can’t just follow “whatever their heart desires”. So they need to analyze whatever data they have all the time to compensate for that lack.
The emotional life of Autistic people is no less intense than that of other people (if not more intense), but — due to the lack of a “gut feeling” — it is not as layered. Much of the wide range of subtle nuances in the emotional spectrum of “Neurotypicals” (aka “normal people”) is completely alien to Autistic people.
The Autistic emotional life is almost exclusively an expression of the level of (dis)comfort one experiences at any given time. While that may seem a very limited range of emotions, the emotional life of people with Autism can nevertheless be just as intense as (if nor more than) that of “Neurotypicals”.
Because people with Autism need to analyze everything all the time whereas “Neurotypicals” can just rely on their “gut feeling”, Autistic people are far more sensitive to a multitude of stress factors, but also far more capable of experiencing a state of Zen-like tranquility when stress factors are minimal.
This means that Autistic people and “Neurotypicals” experience a vastly different emotional spectrum, with different triggers, different sensitivities, different preferences, etc. The obvious consequence thereof is that Autistic people struggle to comprehend the emotional spectrum of “Neurotypicals”.
Perhaps less obvious is that it’s no different the other way around. It is not just difficult for Autistic people to understand and communicate with “Neurotypicals”, but also for “Neurotypicals” to understand and communicate with Autistic people, because their perception of themselves and the world around them is so vastly different.
Autism is NOT a disorder
In the DSM-5, Autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental disorder. However, this notion is controversial and outdated. Many people who have been diagnosed with Autism do not consider their Autism a disorder and scientists are increasingly starting to join their ranks.
Because Autism comes with both extreme weaknesses (flaws) and extreme strengths (gifts), scientists are starting to support the notion that Autism is just a natural but extreme variation in functioning rather than a disorder to be cured. This means that Autism — although at the edges of what qualifies as normal human behavior — is a part of normal human biodiversity.
It is also argued that many (if not all) symptoms associated with Autism are not so much caused by Autism but rather by Autistic people being forced to conform to the mold of a society designed for “Neurotypical” people. That means that these symptoms can and should be alleviated by allowing Autistic people to be themselves instead of forcing them to behave in ways that are alien to them. One might even argue that in a hypothetical society run by Autistic people, it’s the “Neurotypical” who appear to be have some kind of “disorder”.
From this perspective, labeling Autism as a disorder is not just wrong but damaging for the Autistic community, because it creates a false perception that people with Autistic are intrinsically less productive members of society, whereas many people with Autism are not just equally productive but even more productive than “Neurotypicals” when fostering an environment that allows their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses.
Advantages of Autism
People with Autism often have exceptional memories, and can remember information they read weeks ago. They are also less likely to misremember something.
Autistic people often outperform others in auditory and visual tasks, and also do better on non-verbal tests of intelligence. In one study by Mottron, on a test that involved completing a visual pattern, people with autism finished 40 percent faster than those without the condition.
People with Autism often notice details other people don’t notice. Rather than starting with an overview and then zooming in on the details, the mind of the Autistic person goes the other way around. They collect detail after detail and will zoom out to an overview only after they’ve gathered enough details to come to a conclusion.
People with Autism are often non-conformists. They don’t follow the crowd. They look at a problem devoid of political or religious conventionality and pressure. They think out of the box and often come up with ideas no one else in their environment had thought of before.
Autistic people often have a strong ability in fields like science and technology (superior Paleomammalian complex) or fields like art and design (superior Reptilian complex). As a consequence, Autistic people are found among our best programmers, scientists, engineers, inventors, designers and artists.
People with Autism often are extremely honest and very passionate about the things they enjoy. They tend to have a strong interest in solving problems in their areas of interest for their own sake, independent of monetary reward.
People with Autism often have the ability to hyperfocus on a single task for many hours straight. While hyperfocusing, their mind is exclusively focused on that particular task.
Note that not all of these traits are present in every autistic person, however they are all very commonly found within the Autistic community at large.
Autism and employment
With the current economic climate, companies have come to expect more from their employees than in previous decades. Most specifically, they expect employees to have a broad range of skills with at least moderate proficiency and at least one skill that stands out among other skills. To put it simply: companies are typically looking for generalists.
This already is a problem for Autistic people, because Autistic people tend to have a narrower range of skills. And while they may have skills far superior to those of their “Neurotypical” peers, they often don’t have enough other skills of at least moderate proficiency. Autistic people aren’t generalists but specialists.
Ironically, many job descriptions mention great expertise in highly specialized fields. Judging by the job description alone, Autistic people would often be the best match for many jobs out there, due to their high level of specialization and often encyclopedic knowledge of their areas of expertise. Yet, when encountered with both a specialist and a generalist, companies almost always prefer to opt for the generalist, even when the job description clearly suggests otherwise.
What makes things worse, is that job applicants are typically judged based on one or more job interviews. Knowing what to say and when to say it can be hard even for the most socially adjusted “Neurotypical”. For most people with Autism, it’s the equivalent of trying to climb Mount Everest without any climbing material.
Because of the failure of recruiters to relate to Autistic applicants as well as the failure of Autistic applicants to relate to recruiters, the Autistic applicant is nearly always misjudged. Because efficient communication plays a key role in the assessment of an applicant, intelligence and skill-set are nearly always underestimated. Also, the applicant is nearly always believed to be a poor fit for the company’s culture, even when it’s a perfect fit.
The failure of the recruitment process to correctly assess the Autistic individual and the preference of specialists over generalists is a missed opportunity for both the company and the applicant. The result is that the vast majority of Autistic people are either unemployed or underemployed, regardless of their skill-set.
Autism and the tech industry
While companies in Silicon Valley may be more Autism-friendly in their corporate culture and recruitment process than most other companies, this does not apply to the tech industry at large. Even though it is well-known that Autistic people are often better programmers and engineers than their “Neurotypical” peers and how companies can nourish this potential, this knowledge has barely permeated the corporate cultures of tech companies worldwide.
Countless Autistic people with amazing skills in fields like programming or engineering are failing to find employment because corporations fail to recognize their skills. Others are incapable of achieving their full potential because they’re forced into a generalist mold, which results in a huge waste of energy on what they perceive as pointless, menial tasks.
Sure, there’s companies like the Specialisterne or Passwerk that are specialized in getting most out of the characteristics of people with Autism. However, these companies don’t pay very well and have a very narrow focus on rather low end tasks like software testing, quality control and data conversion. They fail to provide the well paid, high end jobs that many people with Autism are perfectly capable of.
Today, it is way past time for a paradigm shift in how tech profiles are filled. It is in the best interest of traditional tech companies to not just consider Autistic people as employees but even create jobs specifically for people with Autism. This, not to achieve some politically enforced diversity quota or as altruistic acts of charity, but because Autistic techies often easily outperform most “Neurotypical” techies and come up with the most innovative ideas, if only they’re given an environment and context that allows them to optimally use their strengths with minimal impact of their weaknesses.
This article has been excerpted from this article by John Siegers.
John Valentin Pieter Hubert Slegers (born December 28, 1981) is a web developer living in Leuven, Belgium. He is best known for developing the free and open source web framework Cascade Framework and as an activist in the Autism rights movement. Slegers obtained a Bachelor of Computer Science in 2006. He worked as an SAP consultant for a few years, but reoriented his career towards web development in 2010. He knew he was somehow “different” from his peers at a very early age and suspected he had Asperger syndrome for several years. Nevertheless, he struggled finding a psychologist qualified enough to see through the many coping mechanisms he had developed since early childhood. In 2013, he was diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It was not explicitly specified as Asperger’s, since it is no longer recognized as a distinct condition following the publication of the DSM-5.
John’s website is johnlegers.com
“In a way, Autistic people have their own unique individual cultures. In that sense, we truly do live in our own little worlds. We live in our own little worlds, not because we choose to or because we fail to understand the world we live in (some Autists actually understand the world far better than many non-Autistic people), but because our inability to relate to the culture we live among sets us apart from that culture.”
— John Slegers