The View of Autism as an IT Asset

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Getting Ahead of Your Organization's IT Skills Gap

Chances are, someone you know in the IT profession—a friend, a relative, a colleague, or even yourself—falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. We don’t seem to talk about it all that much, but the connection between autism and IT is a simple fact of life that likely comes as no surprise to anyone who has spent a career in, or covering, this field. It’s a fact that begs a couple of intriguing questions: Why is this the case? And should we think of autism as a liability—or as an asset?

I recently had a fascinating conversation about this with Dr. Ellis Crasnow, director of STEM3 Academy, a school in Valley Glen, Calif., for high-functioning students who are on the autism spectrum, or who have other social and learning differences.

I opened the conversation by mentioning to Crasnow that when I was editor in chief of Computerworld in 2008, we did a cover story about the relative preponderance of people with varying degrees of Asperger's syndrome in the IT profession. I asked him a straightforward question: Why is it that such a relatively high percentage of people with some form of autism pursue careers in IT? Crasnow said he was thrilled I’d noticed, and covered the phenomenon as a journalist. And he said there’s even data to support it:

Although those on the spectrum go to college with less frequency than the general population, when they do go, they enroll in STEM-related disciplines to a much higher degree. I believe the statistics are around 34 percent of those on the spectrum will enroll in a STEM major, whereas only 22 percent of the general population does. There are a number of reasons for this. One thing that’s been noticed is that individuals on the spectrum often have very superior scores in visual discrimination, and that’s a really marketable skill. If you have a very strong ability in visual discrimination, for example, you can recognize patterns, and you can discern a difference in color and shape much more readily and easily than the average person can. How can you use that? In quality assurance, for example, if you’re debugging software—if you’re trying to find a mistake in lines and lines of code—you need the ability to fasten on to exactly where the error or difference is. Individuals on the spectrum seem to have an extraordinary ability in that area.

Crasnow pointed out that a number of businesses have noticed this, too:

For example, SAP, the giant German software company, has set up a program to hire just those on the spectrum. In fact, I believe by 2020, they want 10 percent of their worldwide work force to be individuals on the spectrum. In April of this year, Microsoft set up a program to train individuals on the spectrum for IT. The most outstanding example, in a way, is that the Israeli army set up a program a number of years ago consisting of just individuals on the spectrum. What they have them do is compare satellite images, looking for a movement in assets, troops, encampments, this kind of thing. They claim it’s been extraordinarily successful. In fact, they’ve expanded the program at least once that I know of, that’s been published. So here you have this group of individuals who have this extraordinary ability—even though they might have some relatively average academics, when it comes to this visual discrimination and perception, they have very superior scores. Not in every case, but to a significant degree. So I think that’s one reason why they gravitate toward these areas. And there are others.

Crasnow went on to explain that to our detriment as a society, we’ve tended to focus on what individuals—particularly those on the autism spectrum—can’t do:

We always talk about, “These are their deficits—they have trouble socializing, they can be rigid thinkers, they can be inflexible. These are things that we have to somehow or other support them in, or try to encourage them to do better at.” Instead, perhaps we should be focusing on these very same qualities, and considering them as potential assets. If you’re going into a STEM-related activity, you often need someone who can be very focused—who can almost have tunnel vision, who can persist, who can be undistracted by anything but the task at hand. If you look at it negatively, you say, “This person is perseverating—they’re like a dog with a bone, they can’t let it go.” Sometimes they can have intrusive thoughts, which persist. But the upside of that is that they can also focus for long periods of time on work that can be repetitious, which might be dull to you or me. But to them, they’re perfectly happy in persevering until they reach a solution. That can be a very, very valuable strength.

That turned out to be a great segue to my next question. I noted that the aforementioned story in Computerworld had sparked a debate among the publication’s readers: Should we think of Asperger’s syndrome as something that needs to be treated as a disorder or disability, or something that’s characterized by traits that can be helpful in life, and that should therefore be harnessed and appreciated? Crasnow said it’s a wonderful debate:

The first thing is, there’s a manual that comes out from time to time called the “DSM,” the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.” That’s the manual the psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, and so on use to diagnose—it lists criteria for a particular disorder. The current one is DSM-5, and the big change in DSM-5, as far as autism is concerned, is that there’s now just one category: Autism Spectrum Disorder. There’s no more Asperger’s, no more High-Functioning Autism—these have all gone away. I think it is enormously helpful to view those who are on the high-functioning end of the spectrum, as I view my students, as possessing gifts which really can be harnessed, supported and scaffolded. Some of them are extraordinarily bright students. So there certainly are individuals who are very, very gifted, and to overlook that is to the detriment of society—we’re overlooking our own assets, our own gifts.

And yet, I noted, even the DSM still refers to autism as a “disorder.” I asked Crasnow if that’s a misnomer. He said he thinks to some degree, it is:

Yes, they might struggle with the social skills; they might have difficulty establishing relationships. But we can support that, and we can encourage them. I believe one of the strengths of a STEM education, such as we have, is that whether you’re performing a science experiment, or conducting trials, or on a robotics team, those are social activities themselves. By being actively and intensely involved in those kinds of things, it encourages their socialization. It encourages them to talk to each other—in a sense, they have to. What I’m seeing, is when they’re in the moment, doing one of these tasks, they’re really engrossed in, they’re like any other kid. There is no difference.

I also had the opportunity to speak with Crasnow about STEM3 Academy, which was an equally fascinating discussion. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.