Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why people on the autism spectrum make good workers

Guest post by John Mark McDonald
            I just want to let you in on a few things that you may not be aware of. The autism spectrum is much larger than people know. There are people on the spectrum that are some of the leading geniuses of all time. People on the spectrum are already in critical positions that help keep our nation’s economy afloat. Employing people on the spectrum is not about charity; it’s about finding the right person for the job and keeping them there. As a matter of fact, you probably already know people who are doing important jobs whom you were not aware were on the spectrum.
            Autistic people tend to have several characteristics that make them able to do certain jobs better than your average worker. Some of these qualities are: organization, creativity, superior memory, hyper-focus, calculation ability, routine-focus, and brutal honesty. I’ll try to some personal and general examples of each of these. Now, sometimes these extraordinary abilities can come with a price, and I’ll point this out as well.
            People on the spectrum have a need for things to be organized. If I walk into a store and the shelves are messy and disorganized, it truly bothers me. It bothers me enough that unless I am restrained, I will spontaneously start organizing them (my wife would frequently chastise me with the phrase, “you don’t work here,” whenever we were out shopping.) The right person on the spectrum will keep your inventory organized far better than the average worker without having to be asked or reminded.
  • Downside: Organization is often not optional and can be confusingly inconsistent from an outside perspective. Having things out of place can leave a person on the spectrum distracted and confused until things are put in the “right” place.
  • People you may know: If you have run across a person that can keep an entire store or warehouse organized and always seems to know where everything is without having to look, this person is probably on the autistic spectrum, even if they don’t know it themselves.
            Creativity is also a hallmark of people on the spectrum. We tend to look at things from a slightly different perspective than the average worker, which allows us to do things that can really catch the customer’s attention. Eye-catching displays, memorable slogans, more efficient ways of doing things, and even new products and services that add to your business are things that someone on the autistic spectrum can bring to your business.
  • Drawback: Creativity is a very hit or miss thing. Sometimes even the best seeming ideas just don’t pan out. Also, autistic people can sometimes get stuck on an idea that turns out to be unworkable. A frank discussion may be needed to get us to move on.
  • People you may know: Most new products are created by people on the spectrum as well as things like logos and artwork.
      Superior memory is one of the most useful of the autistic “quirks.” People on the spectrum often become fascinated by something and will quickly become an expert in whatever that is. This often leads to an encyclopedic knowledge that can give you your own in-house expert.
  • Drawback: The subject has to “catch our attention,” and this is not really voluntary. It either fascinates us or it doesn’t. This type of memory is also extremely quirky. I can remember amazing amounts of historical data but can’t remember the names of people that I know quite well. Warning! If we start talking about a subject we love, we can talk for hours.
  • People you know: If you know someone who knows everything there is to know about a particular subject, they are most likely on the autistic spectrum.
      Hyper-focus is another ability that can be very useful to an employer. Hyper-focus allows the person to become completely absorbed by the task at hand and to then do it at an amazing rate for long periods of time. I remember doing an inventory once where I got into hyper focus and I started going so fast that the other people could barely record what I was inventorying in time.
  • Drawback: When someone is hyper-focused they stop noticing anything else around them. It’s often difficult to get their attention and they may not notice you even yelling their name in their ear. Another problem is that they can forget about their physical needs like eating, drinking or taking bathroom breaks and have been know to collapse exhaustion or dehydration when in this state. Having a supervisor or co-worker look out for them and make them take breaks nay be needed.
  • People you know: Artists are especially known for getting into creative “moods” where they will go on marathon creative streaks and forget about things like eating, sleeping or personal hygiene, but turn out amazing works.
      Some people on the spectrum have amazing calculation and mathematical abilities. These people seem to eat and drink numbers. Because of this people on the spectrum make some of the best bookkeepers, accountants and auditors around.
  • Drawback: No real drawbacks for this one.
  • People you know: If you know someone who is more comfortable with numbers than people in one of the above professions, that is a good indication that they are on the autistic spectrum, although they may not know it themselves.
      Similar to the need for organization is the need for predictability. This most often manifests itself as a reliance on routine. This can be very good in an employee as they tend to be always on time and get things done in a set predictable pattern, which they never tire of. While most employees might find this boring, they find it comfortable and reassuring.
  • Drawback: People who take comfort in routine predictability have a hard time with unexpected major changes. The more warning they have, the better they can accept the change.
  • People you know: Anyone can get into a rut, but there are people who have no interest in getting out of theirs and in fact, get quite upset if their regular rhythm is disturbed.
            Brutal honesty is also a common trait among autistic persons. People on the autistic spectrum tend to remember things by how facts and images relate to one another. If you ask a question, they will answer with the relevant facts. This leads to a straightforward and literal answer to the question asked (which can sometimes be mistaken for sarcasm or aggression.) The tendency is to say exactly what they mean and mean exactly what they say. 
  • Drawback: Tact does not come easily to someone on the spectrum. An offhand question that is asked suddenly will usually get a brutally honest answer. Not that people on the spectrum are incapable of lying, but it is difficult to learn and reluctantly used. People on the spectrum do not tend to use subtexts or implications in their speech and do not usually recognize it in other’s speech. (i.e. hints and sarcasm are often lost on them which can lead to misunderstandings.)
  • People you know: People on the spectrum make very good if hard-nosed judges and law enforcement officers.
            All in all, people on the autistic spectrum make very good “niche” workers. They are very common is positions like IT, engineering, and accounting, and are often successful in these and similar roles as well as artistic areas like actors and writers. The one caution is that we are very specialized workers: we can do some things better than anyone who is not on the spectrum, but the price we pay is in generalized abilities and social interactions.
            If we are pushed to do the things that we find painful because “anyone can do this,” then the same thing will happen that would happen if you used a cell phone for a hammer, it would break. It doesn’t mean that the cell phone is defective; it’s just being used for something it’s not designed for.
            Similarly, we have trouble with social pecking orders and socialization. If you push one of us to act “just like one of the boys,” it will end in disaster. We are also especially vulnerable to bullying and social sabotage. I have more than once gone from the top employee to fired because of a new person that was uncomfortable with me began spreading rumors and accusations, and every person on the spectrum that I have talked to has similar stories. All it usually takes for this to stop is a word to “leave them alone and let them do their job.”
            Last of all, I want to remind you that the autistic spectrum is wide. It goes from people like the character “Rain Man” who needed help to be able to survive to people like Temple Grandin, who is a world renowned expert in her field to entertainers like Dan Aykroyd and Daryl Hannah. Not every person on the spectrum has every one of these abilities and weaknesses but put one of us in the right position and these abilities will amaze you. 

Scincerely, Scintor  AKA
John Mark McDonald


MomtoMax said...

These are all great points. As my son enters into his late teen years we are thinking about potential jobs. My Max is very talented with art. My secret hope is that Disney would pick him up as an animator. I can wish!

I am glad I found this site. I am also hosting a collaborative blog about special needs called: Not Your Typical Kid.

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