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Understanding the cognitive benefits of autism in the technology field

To succeed in today’s busy technology field, a successful professional must display two distinct sets of jobs skills to earn and retain a job. These are called hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are earned through training, education, or previous work experience that has developed a competency in technology. This may include a college degree in computer science, mastering the operation of a piece of machinery, knowledge of coding languages, or on-the-job experience in IT project management. Identifying a worker’s soft skills is less obvious, though some say more important than hard skills in terms of being oriented for long term career success. (Balance Careers) These soft skills include communication, leadership, teamwork, time management, and problem-solving among others.

While many will speculate that autistic technology workers have a natural gift for coding, quality assurance, and robotics; research indicates that autism exhibits softer skills that hold the cognitive benefits valued by employers. Soft skills for people on the autism spectrum may include attention to detail, prolonged concentration, lack of bias, pattern identification, systematic analysis, and a blunt communication style. These soft skills are valued in the technology field where the work is detailed, repetitive and discussion never ambiguous.

To this point, a study published 2012 in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology revealed that some autistic people commonly have greater than normal capacity for processing information and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’. Professor Nilli Lavie from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience stated that “This can only be seen once the task becomes more demanding, with more information to process. In the more challenging task conditions, people with autism are able to perceive significantly more information than the typical adult.” (Science Daily)

Her report’s findings concluded that autistic adults may often excel in information technology and similar careers. This is likely when the jobs involve sustained concentration and the “ability to understand large amounts of data amassed on a Computer.” (CBS News)

A study by Anne Cockayne, Senior Lecturer in Human Resources Management at Nottingham Trent University, conducted a study in 2016. She and colleague Lara Warburton of auto manufacturer Rolls Royce interviewed managers at 6 top organizations. The study revealed that many autistic employees had higher IQs and excelled in roles involving routine and repetitious tasks where attention to detail was considered vital. Using “blunt or direct communication” was also determined to be a strength because problems were brought to light with “refreshing honesty.”

While results are individualized and autism represents a spectrum where no two autists are the same, this study reveals that the cognitive benefits of autism are a foundation upon which hard skills are made better. Technology is not vague about its nature; it is ones and zeros and Boolean by design. As a result of the patterns, repetitions, and rules-based systems upon which most technology is built, a person on the autism spectrum is wired to succeed. A person with autism who can code can do so with greater focus and sustained concentration, for example. A person with autism that performs quality assurance testing on a Web-application can do so with strict adherence to test case analysis without taking short cuts. And a person with autism may speak in direct and factual terms that reveal the truth without bias – a valuable skill in systems analysis work.

In summary, by applying the cognitive soft skill benefits of autism to important tasks – though repetitive or menial (common in the development and testing of technology applications), we can discover a higher quality outcome. When these soft skills pair with hard skills – including science, technology, math, and engineering – autistic cognitive skills can produce a superior result.

Sources:

Feinstein, Adam (2019): Autism Works. A Guide to Successful Employment across the Entire Spectrum. Abingdon: Routledge.

Nottingham Trent University (2016): Asperger’s in the workplace study reveals benefits and challenges for managers. https://phys.org/news/2016-07-asperger-workplace-reveals-benefits.html (08/19/2019)

Doyle, Alison (2019): Hard Skills vs. Soft Skills: What’s the difference? https://www.thebalancecareers.com/hard-skills-vs-soft-skills-2063780 (08/19/2019)

Science Daily (2012): People with autism possess greater ability to process information, study suggests. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120322100313.html (08/19/2019)

Castillo, Michelle (2012): Study: People with autism better at processing information. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/study-people-with-autism-better-at-processing-information (08/19/2019)