Autism and Technical Smarts
Experts explain why some people with autism are good fits for technically demanding jobs.
The three hallmarks of autism are difficulty communicating, problems with
social development, and obsessive, narrow interests. These obsessions are often
extremely technical. Baron-Cohen explains it in terms of "empathizing"
vs. "systemizing." People on the autism spectrum are limited in their
ability to comprehend, or care about, the emotions and motives of other people.
But they are intensely interested in how certain things work. Their brains, he
says, are wired to "systemize," or to pick out patterns in information
and to discern the logical rules that govern systems.
That means people with Asperger's and high-functioning autism often have
great talents for creating and analyzing mechanical systems, such as engines,
or abstract systems, like mathematics and computer programs. Baron-Cohen
recently surveyed undergrads at Cambridge and found significantly more math
majors diagnosed with autism compared with students majoring in other
disciplines, such as medicine, law, and social science. These are all brainy
subjects, but mathematics is best suited to a systemizing mind.
Baron-Cohen's research also found that Cambridge students pursuing math,
physics, and engineering were more likely to have autistic family members
compared with students of literature.
Spike in Autism Cases
Autism used to be considered a rare disorder, but current estimates place
the number of children with autism spectrum disorders somewhere between one in
500 and one in 166. There has been a spike in autism rates over the past two
decades, but the cause is unknown and very controversial. Baron-Cohen is now
investigating whether what he terms "assortative mating" may play some
role in it.
He proposes that people who may carry genes for autism can have strong
systemizing traits, which leads them to pursue careers in science and
technology, where they meet like-minded mates and have children who turn out to
be autistic. To test this idea, he is studying places like California. The
California state health department reported in 2003 that autism cases doubled
between 1998 and 2002, which coincides with the Internet technology boom.
Jobs and Autism
No one has yet taken a head count of people with high-functioning autism or
Asperger's among the ranks of engineers, physicists, and computer programmers.
Popular belief holds that places like NASA and Silicon Valley are havens for
To Nancy Minshew, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, that's beside the point. Far too
many, she says, are not employed at all. Only about one-third have jobs, and
many of them are underemployed.
One of the best-known Asperger's success stories is that of Temple Grandin,
who carved out a unique career designing systems for managing livestock and who
has written books about her experience. "If she had to go through human
resources, she'd be a failure," Minshew tells WebMD. "For some reason,
we think that they have to pass socially-based interviews in order to do a
technological job. Most of the people with Asperger's and autism are going to
fail and never get a job."
Minshew says there are countless jobs -- not just in technology -- that
people with autism could do better than anyone else. "A man in construction
said, 'I need a tile layer that will lay tile straight,' and I said, 'I'll give
you somebody that'll give you a new definition of straight.'"