Tech companies deliberately attempting to hire people with autism

By Tim Worstall , written on March 31, 2014

From The News Desk

This looks like a good move on the part of some tech firms. Deliberately looking among those on the autism spectrum for those whose autism provides them with skills that are useful to said companies:

Some employers increasingly are viewing autism as an asset and not a deficiency in the workplace.

Germany-based software company SAP AG has been actively seeking people with autism for jobs, not because of charitable outreach but because it believes features of autism may make some individuals better at certain jobs than those without autism. Freddie Mac is reported to be doing much the same thing.

The basic idea is that those towards the harsher end of the autism spectrum can find it extremely difficult to find employment. So much of whether you get a job or not depends not upon your actual job or technical skills but upon whether you fit in socially, and on your interview skills: something that can be problematic for those with autism.

So, if they do indeed have the skills that a corporation requires it should be possible to hire those skills for rather less than they would cost elsewhere. This was something I discussed through Gary Becker's ideas back here at Pando. For the sorts of jobs under discussion it's unlikely that the "less" will come in the form of lower wages, but rather through increased loyalty to the employer, and also in getting access highly valuable skills at no extra cost simply through making a hiring effort.

I will admit to a certain surprise though for I'm a little shocked that people haven't been doing this before. We all know that serious technical chops are in short supply while those who can smile their way around social problems are two a penny. And the research into autism from Simon Baron Cohen (no, not Sacha, ie Ali G, but his cousin at Cambridge University) has long been that there's an overlap between that autism spectrum and the ability to concentrate on certain sets of tasks.

Baron Cohen's basic idea is that there's a spectrum of brain types, from the empathic (what might be called in a genderist or sexist way "female") through to the systemising brain (or, same disclaimer, male). No, it does not even imply that all females have that empathising brain, nor all males the systemising. Only that we would expect the distribution of women to be richer at one end of the scale and of men at the other. He points out (in fact one of his pieces of research he touts as proof of the contention) is that engineering requires that systemising type of brain and thus we're not surprised to find more men in it. He goes further too, looking at the families of those who do engineering and looking for signs of autism in the wider family. Among both men and women doing such engineering courses there does, at least he says there is, seem to be more autistics in their wider families than in the general population. This is part of what underpins his description of the autistic brain as being to the edge of the spectrum, way over beyond systemising.

Please note that this description does not mean disabled, just differently abled and not in the politically correct manner that, say, the psychotic are sometimes described as having anger management issues. It's simply a different set up, a more extreme form perhaps, in the brain and this has both its pluses and minuses just as does any other variation around the norm that humans are subject to.

Baron Cohen goes on to note that there's a significant overlap between the skill sets of many on the autism spectrum and the skill sets required to do quite a lot of the harder parts of computer engineering. That socially maladroit geek who will tinker with a machine until they understand how it ticks: that's the beginnings of that spectrum whether it's a male or female doing it. And just for clarity, no, this doesn't mean that every computer engineer is autistic, nor that all with autism could or should be writing code as acolytes of Richard Stallman.

However, given that Baron Cohen has been publishing his views on this for well over a decade now I do express a certain surprise that companies are really only now picking up on Becker's point about such different skills sets and discrimination about people.

It just seems thoroughly logical to me that if you're looking for people with a certain attention to detail then you'd go looking for them among those who are known to both have that attention and also to suffer discrimination from the usual hiring processes precisely because they tend to be somewhat maladroit socially.

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