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Is Having Autism Spectrum Disorder An Advantage In The Technology Industry?

Not every successful employee in the technology industry has Asperger's
Autism Spectrum Disorder is not a guarantee of success in high tech

PayPal founder and Facebook investor, Peter Thiel, writes in his book “Zero to One,”

The hazards of imitative competition may partially explain why individuals with an Asperger’s-like social ineptitude seem to be at an advantage in Silicon Valley today. If you’re less sensitive to social cues, then you’re less likely to do the same thing as everyone around you.

Thiel is not alone in believing that people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) possess natural skills and abilities prized in the competitive world of technology. Microsoft recently paired with the Danish company Specialisterne to train and hire adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder as software analysts and programmers. Aspiritech, a software testing company, focuses on employing adults with Autism as software testers. Their mission statement describes those with ASD as possessing,

Laser-like focus, attention to detail, superior ability to spot irregularities, superlative technical skills, lack of boredom with highly-repetitive tasks-coupled with high levels of intellect and an intense desire to do work that is commensurate with their skills.

Alliance Data, a Fortune 500 company, prizes the superior productivity of people with ASD, seeing them as representing “an untapped labor market.” The Texas-based nonPareil Institute provides training in software design, game and application development and information technology exclusively to adults with Autism, recognizing the unique abilities they have to excel in the technology industry.

This movement to incorporate adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder into the high tech field can be traced back to a 2001 article in Wired Magazine entitled, “The Geek Syndrome,” written by Steve Silberman author of “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity,” widely considered an authoritative history of autism. In his article, Silberman argued that autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder are overrepresented among high-tech workers in Silicon Valley, precisely because of the advantages these conditions offer to software engineers and others in the tech industry. Since then, the notion that autism spectrum disorders, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, is common among tech workers has become something of a truism. As Temple Grandin, the pre-eminent author, thinker, and advocate of autism states, “If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley,

But is this accepted view really accurate? Gary Moore, one of the founders of the nonPareil Institute argues otherwise. The idea that everyone with ASD is smart is a misconception, he notes. In reality, they are just any other cross-section of the population. Some have the ability to be successful programmers but many do not. The truth is most adults with ASD are not employed at all. Studies show that 74-86% are either unemployed, underemployed in jobs that underutilize their knowledge, skills, and experience or wrongly employed, that is, working in jobs for which they are not suited.

Furthermore, the conditions of the tech industry pose insurmountable challenges for many adults with Autism. Long work weeks and strict deadlines, along with compulsory meetings and performance pressures, not to mention the difficulties of hiring interviews, all collude to make high tech a difficult environment for many with ASD.

In reality, the tech industry is like most others. What makes some employees successful varies widely. Certainly, good memory, intelligence, ability to detect details and stay focused over lengthy periods, comfort with highly repetitive tasks, and superior technical skills are important ingredients in the success of anyone working in the technology industry. But so are many other skills and abilities, many of which are not generally associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The fact is, success in high tech depends less on whether someone has Autism and more on whether a person has the same characteristics that would make him or her successful in any field. In truth, Autism Spectrum Disorder is more of a condition to appreciate and utilize and less of a ticket to success.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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