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.
In Autistic individuals, 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 refered to as a “gut feeling”. Autistic people can’t just follow “whatever their heart desires”. So they need to analyse 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 their 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 Autistic people need to analyse everything all the time whenever “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 considered a “spectrum”. This means that it exists in many variations. It also means that some variations have a significant overlap whereas other variations seem almost opposites. This makes it very difficult for many “Neurotypicals” (including qualified psychologists) to grasp what it means to be Autistic and how to recognize someone who is Autistic. Even if you know several Autistic people and have a strong theoretical background of what it means to be Autistic, you may totally fail to recognize the Autism of someone on the “other side” of the spectrum.
So how can you recognize someone with Autism? Well, consider that many characteristics of human behavior and personality have a Gaussian distribution. The more “normal” you are, the more likely you find yourself at the peak of the bell curve of every characteristic, whereas “Autistic” people are most likely to be found on either the beginning or the end of the bell curve. Basically, Autistic people are extreme in their behavior and personality.
Typical characteristics of Autism :
Not only do you find both extremes among different people in the Autistic community, but both extremes can apply to a single individual in different contexts. For example, someone with Autism can have an extremely messy desk while keeping a scratch-free DVD-collection in alphabetic order. Or, someone could be passionately invested in everything related to trains, while being totally disinterested in any sport.
Other characteristics include :
It is also not uncommon for people with Autism to experience sense- and perception-related neurological phenomena like Photophobia, Synesthesia, Prosopagnosia, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia or Dysnomia. However, occurance of these phenomena differ at the individual level. While some individuals may experience several of such phenomena, others experience neither.
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 mould 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 appears 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.
Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, was the first person to use the term Autism in 1911, as a reference to one group of symptoms of schizophrenia. Bleuler defined Autism as a detachment from reality associated with rich fantasy life:
“The […] schizophrenics who have no more contact with the outside world live in a world of their own. They have encased themselves with their desires and wishes […]; they have cut themselves off as much as possible from any contact with the external world. This detachment from reality with the relative and absolute predominance of the inner life, we term Autism.”
Bleuler described a rich variety of clinical manifestations of Autism: poor ability to enter into contact with others, withdrawal and inaccessibility (in the extreme cases, negativism), indifference, rigid attitudes and behaviors, deranged hierarchy of values and goals, inappropriate behavior, idiosyncratic logic, and a propensity to delusional thinking. This enumeration demonstrates that Autism is resilient to a simple medical definition because none of these manifestations is sufficient or necessary to diagnose Autism.
In the 1940s, researchers in the United States began to use the term “Autism” to describe children with emotional or social problems. Leo Kanner, a doctor from Johns Hopkins University, used it to describe the withdrawn behavior of several children he studied. His 1943 paper described 11 children who shared high intelligence, a profound preference for being alone and an “obsessive insistence on the preservation of sameness.” Kanner considered Autism a form of “childhood Schizophrenia.”
Around the same time, in 1944, Hans Asperger — an Austrian pediatrician — described four children in his practice who had difficulty in integrating themselves socially. Asperger identified in four boys a pattern of behavior and abilities that included “a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements”.
In spite of his unfortunate usage of the term “psychopathy”, Asperger passionately defended the value of Autistic individuals, writing :
“We are convinced, then, that Autistic people have their place in the organism of the social community. They fulfill their role well, perhaps better than anyone else could, and we are talking of people who as children had the greatest difficulties and caused untold worries to their care-givers.”
Asperger called these children “little professors” because of their ability to talk about their favorite subject in great detail. Asperger noticed that many of the children he identified as being Autistic used their special talents in adulthood and had successful careers. One of them became a professor of astronomy and solved an error in Newton’s work he had originally noticed as a student. Another one of Asperger’s patients was the Austrian writer and Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, Elfriede Jelinek.
Nevertheless, Asperger’s paper was published during wartime and in German, so it was not widely read elsewhere. For several decades, Kanner’s notion of as a form of “childhood Schizophrenia” persisted in academic literature, and psychoanalysts typically blamed emotionally emotionally distant mothering (known as the “refrigerator mom” theory of Autism). This theory is considered debunked by (almost?) all experts today.
In his 1961 work The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz famously argued that what is commonly qualified as mental illness is merely a deviation from societal norms. Szasz argued that mental illness is a metaphor and not a genuine disease, that it is merely a way of dealing with problematic people in society. “Psychiatry is conventionally defined as a medical specialty concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mental diseases,” he wrote. “I submit that this definition, which is still widely accepted, places psychiatry in the company of alchemy and astrology and commits it to the category of pseudoscience. The reason for this is that there is no such thing as ‘mental illness.’” By the late 1960s, he was perhaps the most famous psychiatrist in America. However, he was also the most despised among peers. This, and his theories being rooted in the discredited field of psychoanalysis, resulted in his work usually being either ignored or vehemently attacked.
In 1971, Israel Kolvin conducted seminal research that highlighted the distinction between Autism and Schizophrenia, which influenced the decision to include Autism and Schizophrenia as two separate categories in in the DSM-III. Still, most of Kanner’s description of Autism wasn’t challenged until Asperger’s research was referenced in a 1981 paper, Asperger’s syndrome: a clinical account, by English researcher Lorna Wing.
Objective criteria for diagnosing Autism soon followed, as did a clear separation from childhood schizophrenia, although it was not until 1991 that an authoritative translation of Asperger’s work was made (by developmental psychologist Uta Frith), which officially introduced Asperger’s work to the English speaking world. Following this publication, the early 1990’s marked the beginning of a gradual change of the perception of Autism towards a very diverse spectrum condition.
In 1997, Professor of developmental psychopathology Simon Baron-Cohen (a cousin of actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) developed the empathising–systemising theory, which suggests that people may be classified on the basis of their scores along two dimensions: empathizing (E) and systemizing (S). Baron-Cohen suggested that the typical male brain is has a stronger affinity with systemising and the typical female brain has a stronger affinity with empathising.
Baron-Cohen further suggested that people with Autism show stronger affinity with systemizing over empathizing compared with their “Neurotypical” peers (irrespective of sex). This led to the conceptualisation of Autism as an “extreme of the typical male brain”. Later, in their 2008 study, Bernard Crespi and Christopher Badcock expanded upon Baron-Cohen’s theory and conceptualized Psychosis as an “extreme of the typical female brain” and the diametrical opposite of Autism.
Note that Psychosis being the “diametrical opposite of Autism” doesn’t mean that Autism and Psychosis are mutually exclusive. It merely means is that they are distinct and radically different brain strategies that are associated with respectively extreme Masculinity and extreme Femininity. While some individuals can be considered as purely Autistic or purely Psychotic, others experience symptoms of both Autism and Psychosis. Schizophrenia, Bi-Polar Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder are typical examples where Autistic and Psychotic symptoms co-occur. The exact differences and similarities between these different “conditions” nevertheless remain very poorly understood.
By the late 1990s, online groups of Autistic persons started publicly defending the notion that that Autism is but a variation on the neurological norm and should be recognized and respected as a social category on a par with gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Since the beginning of the 21st century, this concept is now increasingly picked up by scientists as well, although it’s still considered controversial and thus far from universally accepted.
With recent works like Paris Williams’s 2012 publication Rethinking Madness and Wouter Kusters’s 2014 Philosophy of Madness, a similar paradigm shift has begun involving Psychosis — the “opposite” of Autism. ADHD has also been mentioned in this context, and the term neurodiversity has been coined in reference to a more general application of this concept, roughly echoing the ideas of Szasz many decades after they were first voiced.
Meanwhile, Olga Bogdashina’s little known 2003 publication is one of the first scholarly works to accurately describe Autism in all its diversity and accurately correlate Autistic behavior with corresponding emotions and cognitive styles. This work is the first of several to provide an in depth analysis of the many subtleties and nuances found in the language and perception of Autistic people.
Some people with Autism have successful careers and a normal family life while others barely manage to take care of themselves in any meaningful way. As such, Autists are typically put into one of two different categories, depending on how self-sufficient they are : Low-functioning an High-functioning Autists.
Low-functioning Autists usually have and underdeveloped Reptilian complex and/or Paleomammalian complex alongside an atypically developed Neomammalian complex. This means that they fail to have sufficient strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. When most people hear the word “Autism”, people usually think of Low-functioning Autists, however they’re far from representative of the Autistic community at large.
High-functioning Autists typically have not just a normally developed Reptilian complex and/or Paleomammalian complex but often even a superior Reptilian complex and/or Paleomammalian complex to compensate for the failure of the Neomammalian complex. That means that they are not just as good at dealing with certain problems as “Neurotypical” people, but actually far superior.
Genetics definitely play an important role in deciding whether an Autistic individual is Low-functioning or High-functioning. However, other factors play a role as well. For example, how you educate an Autistic child plays a far greater role in the development of that child’s brain functions, compared with a “Neurotypical” child.
Raising a child with Autism successfully is all about teaching that child how to think in patterns by feeding them information in the form of venn diagrams, line graphs, tabular data, tree structures or other visual patterns that help them see how everything is correlated. It’s all about teaching them to recognize similar patterns themselves by observing the world around them and comparing it to what they already know.
Algebra, programming logic, neuropsychology and sociology are fields of study that can help children even at an early age to move from basic pattern recognition to advanced pattern recognition and can help them integrate their pattern recognition skills in their daily life.
Think of a child with Autism as a robot born without instructions that you need to program yourself before it’s of any use. The more efficiently you and others program that little robot, the more likely it is you who will fall behind on your kid rather than the other way around. A lot depends on his processing speed and memory and by implementing efficient pattern recognition, you significantly reduce strain in these areas.
Some might consider it offensive to compare someone with Autism with a robot, yet it’s really not intended to be that way. Autism really is a lot more like the mind of a computer than the mind of a “Neurotypical” person and it really can be programmed in a myriad of ways, making the Autistic brain far more diverse, far more flexible but also far more volatile than that of “Neurotypical” people.
The worst thing you could do to an Autistic child, is feed it loads and loads of raw disconnected data; feed it a lot of data without structuring it or correlating it to previously taught data. The result thereof is that the mind becomes a maze of raw data scattered across one’s memory and remembering how to do even the simplest things becomes very difficult as there are no directions in the maze.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the distinction between Low-functioning and High-functioning is rather arbitrary and not always obvious to make. For example, some people with Autism remain mute for many years, yet still manage to develop normal language skills later on and even become successful engineers.
To answer that question, it’s important to define what you mean by “empathy”. The notion of empathy — as commonly understood — can be split up into three different concepts :
A typical Autistic man is only capable of rationally putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They lack the capacity to subconsciously generate physical sensations based on environmental data and thus also the linking mechanism that normally follows.
A typical Autistic woman is both capable of rationally putting herself in other people’s shoes and does subconsciously generate physical sensations based on environmental data, but does not have a linking mechanism that automaticly connects these physical sensations to thoughts.
Because of this difference between the typical Autistic man and the typical Autistic woman, Autistic women are more likely to develop strong social skills than Autistic men and Autistic women are therefore less likely than Autistic males to stand out in a crowd as “weirdos” or “eccentrics”. As a consequence, Autism is less commonly recognized among female subjects, even by professionals.
Autistic people do live in their own world, but not in the way most people think they do.
Autistic people are in their own world in the sense that they don’t have a cultural identity. “Neurotypicals” tend to identify with one or more specific cultures to the point that they’re incapable of distinguishing their individual identity from the group identity and their individual beliefs from the group’s beliefs.
Question the religious views of a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim and they all tend to feel personally offended, even though you’re merely questioning their views and not them as a person. The same applies to political views or any views held so dearly people identify with them.
Alongside group identity, “Neurotypicals” also develop shared faith / prejudice. “Faith” and “prejudice” and are respectively positive and negative labels given to the same attitude and behavior : believing something very strongly without being able to prove it. A key advantage of shared faith / prejudice is that it simplifies communication among people of the same cultural background. People know what to expect from each other and how to behave in another’s presence with barely any information at all. A key disadvantage, however, is that this strategy often fails when people come in contact with others who don’t share the same cultural faith / prejudice.
Autistic people lack the “implicit learning” mechanism that is responsible for this kind of group thinking, which is what makes them much more individual in their cognition, their emotions and their communication styles. While Autistic people do adopt a lot of behavior and knowledge from their environment like anyone else, they do so much more consciously and are consequently much less emotionally attached to this behavior and knowledge.
Autistic people therefore tend to hold less faith / prejudice than “Neurotypicals”, which — in a sense — makes them more flexible than “Neurotypicals”. A downside of this, however, is that this complicates communication with “Neurotypicals” and culturally isolates Autistic people from their environment.
In a way, Autistic people have their own unique individual cultures. In that sense, they truly do live in their own little worlds. They live in their own little worlds, not because they choose to or because they fail to understand the world they live in (some Autistic understand actually the world far better than many “Neurotypicals”), but because their inability to relate to the culture they live among sets them apart from that culture.
Consider how it would feel to be a North-American or Western-European living as the sole immigrant in a rural community in East-Asia, sub-Saharan Africa or South-America. That is exactly how an Autistic person experiences every day social interactions.
Ironicly, this makes Autistic people more adapted to living among people of a different culture. One one hand, it’s because people tend to be more forgiving about social mistakes and quirky behavior when faced with a foreigner. On another hand, that’s because people with Autism are so used to living among people who identify with a culture that feels alien to them that actually living among a foreign culture feels only marginally more alien than their every day experience.
People with Autism often have exceptional memories, and can remember information they read weeks ago. They are also less likely to misremember something.
People with Autism 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.
People with Autism 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 person with Autism, however they are all very commonly found within the Autistic community at large.
Some of the world’s greatest engineers, programmers, scientists and artists are known to have been Autistic or believed to have been Autistic.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reportedly had repeated facial expressions and unintentional constant motion of his hands and feet It was also believed that Mozart’s hearing was very sensitive and intense and loud sounds made him feel physically sick. Other reports indicate that he was excessively active. Mozart was unable to carry on an intellectual conversation and existed in a careless and reckless way with impolite and frequent mood changes. It is reported that one day, Mozart was particularly bored and jumped up and hurdled over tables and chairs, meowed like a cat and did somersaults. Mozart’s letters indicated a presence of echolalia. Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Mozart most likely had some form of Autism.
Isaac Newton was very quiet and not very good at ‘small talk’, or typical day to day conversations. He was extraordinarily focused on his work and had a hard time breaking away. He was often so focused that he forgot to eat during these times of intense focus. He was not good at keeping or making friends as he did not appear friendly, nor did he know how to talk with individuals he did consider to be friends. He also relied strongly upon routines. For example, if he had been scheduled to give a lecture, that lecture was going to happen whether there was an audience or not. Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Newton most likely had some form of Autism.
Charles Darwin was a solitary child, and even as he grew to be an adult, avoided interaction with people as much as he could. He wrote letters often, but did not often partake in face-to-face communication. Writing letters was his preferred means of communication. He collected many things and was very intrigued by chemistry and gadgets. He was a very visual thinker as well as a rather obsessive-compulsive and ritualistic man. Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Darwin most likely had some form of Autism.
Michelangelo had obsessional behavior, a fiery temper, and the propensity to be a loner. He had a single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills. He was obsessive and followed repetitive routines. If he did not follow these routines, it would create great frustration. He has been described as strange, without affect, and isolated, as well as being “preoccupied with his own private reality.” Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Michelangelo most likely had some form of Autism.
Nikola Tesla was a foremost inventor and engineer, more brilliant by far than his contemporary Edison, who ultimately exploited him and stole many of his ideas. Known as a very eccentric person, Tesla harbored a crippling series of phobias, maintained his celibacy, had a sensitivity to light and sound, and was intensely focused on numbers (especially the number three — he wouldn’t stay in a room whose number was not divisible by three). He was very soft spoken, but could be nasty in defense of his strange beliefs. While generally reclusive and fanatically driven by his work, he could grandstand and was good friends with Mark Twain in his middle years. As he aged, he became even more bizarre, ultimately earning the derision of the scientific community and dying alone in a hotel room, nearly penniless. Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Tesla most likely had some form of Autism.
Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft, and frequently tops the list of the richest people in the world. The only living entrant on my list, Gates exhibited a marked technical acumen from youth — his computer programming skills and attention to detail were remarkable, and he racked up an almost perfect score on the SATs. He has a distinct rocking motion when he is concentrating, a clipped monotone speech pattern, and has developed a reputation for being distant, avoiding eye contact, and lashing out at subordinates when he is displeased. Together, these characteristics seem to point to the conclusion that Gates most likely has some form of Autism.
Note that this list is far from complete. In fact, it’s but the tip of the iceberg.
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 sufficient 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.
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 entry. They fail to provide the well paid, high end jobs that many people with Autism are the perfect fit for.
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 high end 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.
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