“Innovation is based on diversity and inclusion. Diversity means we really value all different perspectives and it means including perspectives from people with autism, and without additional perspectives we could not create superior products”
Tania Rueckert, EVO and COO Products and Innovation Development, SAP AG, one of the 5 largest software companies in the world.
People with Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) often find it difficult to find and sustain employment: only 15% of adults with ASC in the UK are in full time jobs with a further 9% in part time employment. But as an employer, why should you care? Because there is growing recognition in academic and industrial research which shows that teams that incorporate different thinking styles and approaches produce better outcomes. Not to mention the legal requirements for inclusion of the Equality Act 2010, corporate social responsibility criteria and the costs, both in time and financial, of dealing with the HR issues of an underperforming or absent employee. In this article we consider the skills that people with ASC have to offer, how their different thinking styles can complement a workforce and offer some examples of the success this can bring. We’ll refer to various sources of information reporting on the experiences of well-known scientist, Temple Grandin.
Thinking Styles and ASC
ASC is not only a spectrum condition with varying severity and characteristics, those with ASC tend to have distinct thinking styles to “neuro-typicals*”. Different thinking styles can be hugely valuable as they lead to approaching problems from a different perspective and discovering new solutions as a result.
The thinking styles associated with ASC tend to be classified into 3 types:
Visual: This is known as photo-linguistic thinking. Visual thinkers report thinking in pictures not language.
Temple Grandin Phd., renowned scientist, author and member of the Time 100 list of most influential people in the world, who also has ASC, describes herself as a “visual thinker”. She spent her career designing livestock facilities and 50% of cattle in the US now pass through equipment that she has designed.
Temple says “my mind works like Google images…I see movies in my imagination and this helped me understand animals”. Viewing the world in pictures, as animals do, enabled her to design systems for handling livestock that were sympathetic to the animals’ viewpoint, enabling them to be moved calmly, swiftly and therefore more efficiently. The different approach led to an innovative solution.
There are physiological differences in the brain associated with this ability to think in images. In a lecture at TED Temple Grandin discusses research which shows people with autism tend to think with their primary visual cortex. A scan of Temple’s brain shows how her visual cortex is enlarged compared to a control group of peers of the same age and gender.
*Neuro-typical: someone with typical levels of cognitive functioning, not on the autistic spectrum.
Verbal: People with this style of thinking tend to use unique narratives. They like verbal cues, making lists and tend to have great capacity for remembering facts and statistics. They may perceive language literally: it’s raining cats and dogs. Verbal thinkers tend to learn foreign languages easily.
Pattern: This style of thinking is more abstract, enabling people to make logical connections. Pattern thinkers tend to be skilled at music and maths, they like finding relationships between numbers or notes. In modern times, Mozart would likely have been diagnosed as autistic with pattern style of thinking. Pattern thinkers often make good computer programmers and engineers.
Cognitive Differences as Strengths
In reality, thinking styles tend not to be discrete, the characteristics of one style do not occur in isolation, so that people with ASC have overlapping thinking characteristics and skills. Thinking style could be considered a spectrum in itself.
The different thinking styles complement each other, having a variety of perspectives on a team ensures the team considers all aspects of a problem. Too often we think of characteristics that are outside the “norm” as weakness, the key is to recognise the differences as strengths.
The British intelligence organisation GCHQ does just that and has established a neuro-diversity programme with the aim of specifically recruiting those with ASC and similar conditions. The ability to analyse large amounts of complex information logically and dispassionately while paying attention to the detail is a great skill in intelligence work. Other strengths that are often noted in autistic profiles are exceptional memory for details, schedules and routines; adherence to order and accuracy and reliability and loyalty.
The Benefits for Employers
In 2014 SAP, one of the 5 largest software companies in the world, launched a program aiming to recruit employees with ASC, with the goal of having 1% of their global workforce represented by people with autism by 2020. This is what they have to say about it:
“There is a skill set people on the spectrum are bringing that has business value. Industry papers tell you that in complex functions, it will take 6 to 12 months of salary to replace the level of productivity that the person left behind. That we are providing an employment opportunity for someone with a tremendous eagerness to get a job will probably help us with retention, a pervasive problem in software and IT.
The mindset was that we would hire software testers, but we’re finding all kinds of skills in all kinds of disciplines. New hires have become business analysts, developers, and even project managers -a role that was thought to be too communication-dependent. One person began in a more tech-oriented role, then networked her way into a graphic-design position” Jose Velasco, Vice President of Product Management and Head of Autism at Work program at SAP.
“The Autism at Work program is a game changer for SAP. It enables us to broaden our ability to attract, develop and retain the best people the marketplace has to offer,” Jewell Parkinson, Head of Human Resources for SAP North America.
People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome have brilliant and unique skills that they can bring to the work place. Like neuro-typicals, they are constantly developing new skills and learning new strategies to cope with any difficulties in their working environment. Providing support and reasonable adjustments where possible is a worthwhile endeavor for any employer, providing a strong return on investment through the results that are achieved. Including people with different thinking styles and cognitive skills in the workplace improves productivity and innovation exponentially. To quote GCHQ, “Success depends on great minds not thinking alike”.
The article has focused on general traits which are likely to differ for each individual. Remember ASC is a spectrum, all people with ASC are different and have different combinations of skills and challenges. Psychologists for Autism are able to offer individual and workplace assessments in order to advise on an individualised plan for reasonable adjustments that are based on the person’s unique ASC profile of strengths and challenges as well as any unique features of the workplace environment which would need to be taken into account.
Please do contact us if you would like further information on our assessments and other services we may be able to offer in relation to employment and autistic spectrum condition.
https://youtu.be/fn_9f5x0f1Q Temple Grandin: The world Needs All Kinds of Minds
http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/233738 How to Create an Autism Friendly Workplace
Spy Brains Sunday Times, August 2015