Unlocking the power of neurodiversity in tech can foster innovation and challenge misconceptions about autism spectrum disorder.
By Johan Steyn, 10 May 2023
The world of technology has long been associated with certain personality traits and behaviours, including a tendency towards introversion and a passion for problem-solving. It’s no surprise, then, that many people with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, find that their skills and interests align with the demands of the tech industry.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects social interaction, communication and behaviour. It is considered a part of the autism spectrum and was named after Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician who first described the condition in the 1940s.
People with ASD, affectionally known as “Aspies”, often have unique strengths and perspectives they can bring to the tech industry, including a keen eye for detail, a talent for pattern recognition and a high degree of honesty and integrity. As many traditional industries like banking are essentially becoming technology-driven enterprises, business leaders should consider implementing more inclusive hiring practices, such as offering internships or training programmes specifically targeted at autistic individuals and providing support and adequate working environments for employees with sensory sensitivities or other challenges.
Companies like Google and Microsoft have made efforts to create more welcoming workplaces for people with Asperger’s and other forms of autism, including offering support groups, mentorship programmes and sensory-friendly workspaces.
A misunderstood disorder
I am an Aspie myself and ASD is largely misunderstood by most people. A common misconception is that it can only be diagnosed in childhood, while in fact, some individuals are diagnosed as adults or never at all. ASD is not an illness but a lifelong neurological disorder that can be managed with the right support and coping mechanisms.
Another misconception is that individuals with ASD are incapable of feeling or expressing empathy. Though they may have difficulties with social cues, they can still experience emotions and empathy. It is also not true that individuals with ASD are all intellectually disabled or lack imagination and creativity; many have average or above-average intelligence and can excel in creative fields.
An article in the Washington Post titled “Why shades of Asperger’s syndrome are the secret to building a great tech company” asks why those on the neurodiversity periphery are often able to reach great heights in the world of technology. They quote Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, who said, “Many of the more successful [technology] entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialisation gene.”
Some of the more famous tech entrepreneurs who have displayed ASD characteristics include Steve Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Meta), Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft) and Elon Musk (Tesla & SpaceX). But hang on, why are these all men? Studies have shown that though ASD affects on average 1 out of 100 people; the ratio between men and women is 4:1.
The academic and author Temple Grandin, in her book Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, has said in an article by ComputerWorld (“Asperger’s and IT: Dark secret or open secret?”) that labels like “geek” and “nerd” are often said of people with ASD as “the Asperger’s brain is interested in things rather than people, and people who are interested in things have given us the computer you’re working on right now”.
Aspies have created the computer. One can only wonder what role will they play in the rapidly advancing world of artificial intelligence (AI). Some have even hypothesised that should AI one day show real human, sentient characteristics, it will most likely be that of an autistic person.
• Steyn is on the faculty at Woxsen University, a research fellow at Stellenbosch University and founder of AIforBusiness.net.