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Autistics offer unique computing skills

June 3, 1998
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m EDT

by Gary H. Anthes

(IDG) -- For many of us, the word "autism" evokes frightening images of children shut off from the world, rocking, screaming or banging their heads. And if we think of autistic adults at all, we are likely to picture Dustin Hoffman playing the odd, card-counting "savant" in the 1988 movie Rain Man.

While not inaccurate, those perceptions fail to account for thousands ofautistic adults whose special ways of thinking make them quite well-suited for jobs in programming and computer graphics. Autism often leaves those people with poor social and communication skills while bestowing gifts of extraordinary concentration and creativity.

Unfortunately, for every autistic person who succeeds in the workplace, there are eight or nine who fail.

Why? It's partly bias from employers, although often the bias is unintended. One bright but socially inept autistic programmer says of the job interview, "I set off every warning flag the interviewer's got. He thinks, `Boy, I can't quite place my finger on it, but that guy is really weird."

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 helped produce user-friendly work environments for those with physical impairments. But the special needs of those with mental handicaps aren't well-understood by most employers.

However, it isn't necessary to consult with psychologists and neurologists to understand the conditions under which autistics are most likely to succeed. In interviews for a recent story on computers and autism, I asked a number of autistics what they need to be successful in the workplace.

They say they require employers who understand and respect their social limitations; they need quiet, stable and predictable work environments; and they must be given very clear goals and objectives.

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Teamwork isn't appropriate, they say, nor are management responsibilities.

For employers able to offer the right environment, the payoff can be significant. In the words of one autistic programmer, "We can offer dramatically innovative approaches, the ability to focus on a limited number of things for extended periods to a far greater degree than nonautistics and, on occasion, savant-like abilities available from no one else."

Because autism profoundly impairs a person's ability to form emotional attachments and communicate, people sometimes assume autistics lack feelings. But in my interviews with autistics, I found depression and anger often combined with a sort of gallows-humor resignation at the way they are misunderstood, underappreciated and often humiliated.

Temple Grandin, an autistic professor at Colorado State University, credits "mentors" for helping her learn how to jump autism's awesome mental hurdles. She now calls on computer professionals to do the same for bright autistic kids, many of whom otherwise are headed for lives of unemployment.

Grandin tells of a bright autistic boy who recently dropped out of high school because he was bored. ``If someone came along and plopped a Silicon Graphics workstation in front of him and showed him how to use it, he wouldn't be bored anymore,'' she says.

Autistic kids should be doing real programming, not "playing with stupid computer games," Grandin urges.


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