This is an article I wrote for the engineering business press in the UK. It is being issued as a general PR piece by my company. Normally I write fascinating technical articles as spray nozzles but I thought I’d try an use my business to do some good for the cause of autism. It is an article about how the autistic mind can often excel in the fields of engineering so is entirely relevant to my normal target audience in my work related writings, namely engineers and engineering managers. If anyone reading this knows anyone working in those fields please help spread the word. This is an important message to get out there.
Whilst the article below focuses on the strengths of the autistic mind when applied to engineering this is by no means the only area in which autistic people can excel. There are many success stories in the arts, computer science and other areas. Sure some careers will be made more difficult by autism but with many jobs the differences in the autistic brain can actually be turned into an advantage. So often the media only focuses on the disadvantages of autism and this article is my way of highlighting the strengths of the autistic brain and hopefully get some decision makers in engineering companies to see the opportunity to hire autistic talent.
Once again: please share and link this with anyone who you might think is in a position to act on the suggestions of this article.
A waste of talent
What would you think if I told you that there was a group of people within our society that probably contained amongst their members some of the greatest scientists, inventors and engineers humanity has ever produced? Amongst its members are likely to be Einstein, Tesla and Newton as well as many of the techies that were responsible for the dotcom boom and the explosion of Silicon Valley into the world’s most concentrated area of business wealth. I presume you would, as engineering / technical companies, want a way to identify this group of people and to get them to work for your business if possible. What if I then went on to tell you that only 15% of this group actually find full time work as adults? Would you think I was talking nonsense? Or would you be worried as to how we can allow this waste to happen? The more business savvy amongst you might immediately see this as an opportunity ready to be exploited and I would agree entirely.
The group I am talking about is the autistic people in our society. A group that now makes up about 1 in 100 people in the UK. A group that is generally willing and able to work but is woefully under-utilised in the workplace. More specifically it is a group whose minds are often particularly well suited to engineering work.
What is autism?
Autism is a hugely varied condition and a full detailed explanation of all its manifestation is beyond the scope of this article but very briefly: Autism is defined as a social communication disorder. We run into some problems right off the bat with that definition. A “disorder” implies that something is “wrong” with autistic people, that they are disabled or less capable than normal “neurotypical” folks. This is incorrect. Whilst some autistic people are disabled by their condition, for many autistic people their autism is a better viewed as a difference in brain wiring neither better nor worse than a normal brain. As with any difference, though, there will be strengths and weakness. The contention of this article is that the strengths of the autistic brain often significantly outweigh the weaknesses when it comes to working in the engineering sector.
The strengths of the autistic mind
The media often focuses on the weaknesses of the autistic mind. These weaknesses do need to be considered as they impact heavily on having an autism friendly work place but first I want to highlight the potential strengths of autistic people. Specifically the strengths when it comes to working in the engineering disciplines.
1 An ability to think and see differently
The different brains of autistic people mean they can often approach problems in a way that neurotypical people don’t even consider. They will often bring design concepts to engineering problems that have not been thought of before. On the grand scale of human achievement we have people like Einstein and Newton who made their ground breaking contributions to science by thinking things that lesser mortals were incapable of. There is nothing intuitive about general relativity. It took a different kind of mind to break free from the prevailing thinking.
Einstein and Newton showed strong autistic traits although neither were formally diagnosed. Clearly not every autistic person is going to be making earth shattering scientific discoveries, it takes a rare genius to do that, but on a smaller scale this ability to think differently can be immensely valuable. Would having autistic brains on the design team that can come at a problem from a different angle be of value to most firms? Could a more neurologically diverse team solve more problems, innovate better and thus have a competitive advantage? I suggest that they would and it seems the CEO’s of Silicon Valley agree as their use of autistic talent is well publicised.
2 Thinking in pictures
Many autistic people have an amazing ability to visualise complex objects and literally think in pictures rather than words. A particularly good example of this is a lady named Temple Grandin. She has a PhD in Animal Science and has worked designing slaughter houses and animal handling systems for decades. Her designs revolutionised this industry, made it far more humane and efficient. She is also autistic and her mother was told that she would never learn to talk or lead an independent life.
Temple attributes her engineering success to her ability to “think in pictures”. She sees how the cattle will move and react and she instinctively knows how the cattle runs and chutes need to be structured to keep them calm and moving. She literally sees her designs in her brain and then translates them into engineering drawings. Of course we all visualise to a certain degree but often the autistic mind will often have superior picture thinking capacity. Does this ability to think in pictures sound like the type of thing that an engineer might find useful? Again I would posit that it is of great utility.
Many autistic people have an uncanny ability to focus intensely on a problem for hours at a time without tiring of it. Silicon Valley is full of autistic computer coders who will pull 24 hour shifts making or debugging lines of computer code. Not many neurotypical people can match this level of focus. For those tight engineering deadlines does this not sound like a big asset for any firm?
The perfect combination
With these traits it is almost certainly true that there are many potential superstar engineers who are currently unemployed because their autism also presents some significant barriers to gaining employment. So the savvy engineering firm who is on the lookout for new talent only needs to learn how to overcome these barriers to tap into this talent. This to me seems like an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment market. The question then is how do we make autism friendly work places?
Making autism friendly work places
Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this article to cover this topic in full but a few pointers can be given as well as some suggested further reading for those who wish to embrace this opportunity fully.
The interview process
The social communication issues faced by autistic people can make an interview particularly stressful for them. This means they often interview quite poorly when compared to neurotyopical people. If, however, certain modifications to the interview process are made then it is perfectly possible to “see through” the autism and assess the ability of the candidates to actually do the job. Which after all is what it is all about!
The work place
Certain allowances may need to be made in the work place. The hustle and bustle of an open plan office may be incredibly distracting for an autistic person who has sensory processing issues (a common problem with autistic people). In some cases UV lights and other humming electrical equipment can be deafening to the autistic mind. Quiet working places or the ability to work from home will often solve these problem.
Autistic people often work better alone. When working in a team it is better to assign to them discrete tasks within the team that can be completed individually. Obviously in many situations collaborative working will be required. In these cases it is often better to develop some key workers who understand their autistic colleagues well and ensure that it is those workers who collaborate on tasks with them. Throwing an autistic person into a team of strangers to work with is probably not a great idea. They can, however, form very good close working relationships with people they have developed trust with.
Being autistic in a neurotypical world is tough. Many autistic people have told me that the effort of interacting “normally” or trying to behave neurotypicaly mentally exhausting. They need to “act” every day of their lives. Sometimes this results in burnout. A good employer needs to understand that sometimes autistic people will require down days to recharge. This is not to say they need to work fewer hours it is simply the recognition that from time to time home working or a day off to recharge may be necessary. With some flexible working patterns, though this downtime can be made up by additional hours at other times in the week.
Often autistic people struggle with loose or open instructions. If, however, they are given clear goals and instructions then they will tap into that autistic focus and get the tasks done effectively and efficiently. Most neurotypical people tend to enjoy having the freedom to interpret tasks on their own and tackle problems in their own way. Often autistic people will need some help starting and structuring a task but once they understand exactly what they need to do they will excel. In some respects they actually respond well to micro-management, which is of course a common complaint from most workers!
So why am I writing this?
The short answer is that I have a son with autism. He’s not even 5 yet so is a little too young to be worrying about a career in engineering just yet but there are thousands of his older peers who face bleak employment futures. Only 15% of autistic adults are in full time employment in the UK. This compares to 43% of adults with disabilities in general. This, of course, is an emotive and worrying issue for me as a father but I also see this as a complete waste of talent. Taking off my father hat and looking at this objectively as the owner of a company in the engineering sector this is an opportunity to find great new engineers.
Now my company is not a huge company we primarily offer advice and products around spray technology and nozzle. We are small and specialist so we don’t employ hundreds of engineers by any stretch of the imagination but when we are next hiring our company will be autism ready. Will the next person we hire be autistic? The law of averages says probably not. But we will be able to make allowance for autistic candidates so we won’t discount them by mistake. If you want to learn more then there are some resources linked below and I am always more than happy to speak to any fellow business owner or their hiring managers who want to learn more about making autism friendly work places. My hope is that by the time my son gets to working age that 15% employment figure will have vastly improved.
The National Autistic Society’s Employment Training Team can provide support and training to managers, colleagues and employees with autism. You can contact them to discuss your requirements on firstname.lastname@example.org or call 020 7704 7450
The TUC has quite a lengthy guide to autism in the work place