“By autistic standards the neuro typical brain is easily distractable, obsessively social and suffers from a deficit of attention to detail” – Steve Silberman
Autism is said to effect 1 in 62 people. That’s around a million people in the U.K. alone. It appears there is a correlation between autism and the world of science and technology. There is a pretty compelling body of evidence showing this link (Baron-Cohen et al, 1998; Windam, 2009; Roelfsema et al, 2011; Wei, 2003). So why this tendency towards tech for autists? Well there are a number of traits of the autistic mind that lend themselves very well to working in the technology sector. Here are just three examples:
It is thought that many of the autists in tech have a tendancy towards a spatial thinking mode – that is, they have the kinds of brains that are particularly gifted at thinking about where things are in relation to each other.
Oddly enough, this concurs with one of my favourite pieces of research by Marian Petre and Alan Blackwell . This also resonates with me personally. I can vividly remember working on a tricky database design and having a mental image of skyscrapers with interconnecting walkways that I could walk around.
This predisposition for spatial reasoning also makes sense when we consider the Tech Industry’s historical preference for structured diagrams as a way of showing relationships between things (hierarchies, boundaries etc). My studies of experienced agile software developers using an eXtreme Programming approach showed that even the informal diagrams that they drew (to explain things to one another when pair programming) had many of these properties.
This is not the only reason autism and tech is a match made in heaven.
Another way in which autism can be a benefit in the software development arena is the almost obsessive manner in which autists sometimes research, remember and apply specialist knowledge they have. We have all heard stories about someone on the spectrum who can remember pi to an incredible number of digits or an autistic child who has memorized train timetables.
I was once nicknamed “mustard” (for being so keen), having memorized the entire government working time directive legislation overnight so that we could apply it to the clocking in and out data of a supermarket and flag up any non-compliance.
This thirst for, and retention of, information on a specialist subject feels almost custom made for software development. Especially if we couple this with the desire to continually learn, to tirelessly gather knowledge about our specialist subjects with gusto – in the same manner as those people who relentlessly collect badges or teacups or tickets.
Who wouldn’t want to know every library function or every coding standard? Rather like a chess master, who wouldn’t want to remember and be able to re-execute every single bit of brilliant code-writing they had ever encountered? Or remember how even rarely used parts of the system worked? Or have a historic memory for how and why one design decision had been made over another?
Being fine with repetitive tasks
Some folk with autism can happily perform what for others would seem like mindlessly repetitive tasks, it’s a known and well-documented autistic trait. Personally, I transcribed and analysed the content of 14,866 sentences of programmers’ dialogue as part of my PhD without thinking that it was at all an arduous, obsessive or strange thing to do.
This trait is a hugely beneficial super-power for folk in I.T. In fact, we are starting to see companies advertising and recruiting specifically for austists in fields such as software testing, where the attention to detail of the autistic mind, coupled with the ability to quite happily test almost exhaustively without tiring is a definite benefit.
These are just three of the many benefits of having an autist on your team. You probably have one anyway. So as an industry let’s get better at embracing and supporting autism.