Why you want an Autist on your tech team.

“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:

Thinking spatially

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.

Specialist knowledge

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.

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8 Comments

  1. > why this tendency towards tech for autists?

    I have often wondered if the opposite is also true, that techologists have a tendency toward autism, or at least toward some autistic patterns of thought/thinking? I do not mean to say that we are all autists, and I *really* do not intend any kind of offence to the neurotypical or neuroatypical, but those of my own profession (software design) often exhibit general characteristics that are conventionally associated with autists. Is this something you would recognise, are am I just imagining it?

    1. I see a correlation. I can’t say if it’s causal and if so, which was round.
      Do autistic folk gravitate towards to tech or does tech select autists?
      I don’t think being in tech can “turn you autistic”. I think it’s there already.

      1. I have no argument to confirm a causal relationship. But common sense counsels that any group will gravitate away from professions whose core skills they lack, and toward professions whose core skills they have in spades!

  2. Great article — thanks for getting us all talking about neuro-diversity!

    Your point about spatial reasoning resonates; I suspect that may be why Naked CRC goes down so well in my training classes.

    I suspect my superpower may be the ability to take user requirements at face value, thereby avoiding all the issues of ambiguous language etc.

  3. Hi Sal, No doubt we need diversity neuro or otherwise on our teams, and with rates or perhaps the diagnosis of ASD on the rise we may be spoilt for choice. As you point out, you don’t see a deficit of ASD individuals in tech: It looks like a marriage made in heaven. I wonder how you see the future of teamwork then? Research suggests that high functioning teams have high levels of collective intelligence finding a link to social sensitivity and find no link with individual IQ in regards to team performance (Wooley et al 2010 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/330/6004/686.abstract)

    A team dominated by people on the ASD spectrum doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. With employers always looking for a quick fix, black and white solution “I know let’s only hire engineers who are ASD”, it feels like we ignore the reality of teamwork and again focus on the Rockstar high IQ approach. Google have soundly debunked the team of rockstars approach, showing that individual IQ was not a factor in team performance. At the risk of answering my own question and using your term – we need neurodiversity, what we don’t want is homogenous teams dominated by engineers scoring high for ASD because of a misguided HR policy. If we are to solve the myriad complex challenges facing us what we need is high functioning teams not a focus on high functioning individuals. Nice chatting with you at LLKD by the way 🙂

    1. Thanks for the comment Eben 🙂 Nice to chat to you at LLKD too.
      Yes, I am in agreement – I don’t think homogenous teams are the answer and I think we talked about that.
      Diversity is the key.

      IQ is a strange old measure anyway and one that I don’t take too seriously.
      That’s despite doing a MENSA IQ test and scoring highly. I came to believe that all it meant was that you were good at doing IQ tests.

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