Workplace Accommodation for Autistic Employees Spurs Innovation

by Rebecca Schembri, Science Communicator, March 19, 2022

Autism advocate Dr. Temple Grandin is very good at building things. She explains that humans would still be living in caves if autism spectrum condition didn’t exist. Grandin argues that people with the condition, or autists, made the first tools, the first buildings, and the first modes of transportation. She knows this because she, too, is autistic. Autists are creative and detailed, and they can visualize designs. Autists have hyperfocus, an intense ability that blocks out distractions. And autists have excellent memories that exceed non-autistic minds. This is why autists are well-equipped to build and support civilization. The autistic gene is a benefit to humanity, and it must be utilized and protected in the workplace. Companies need autistic talent because autists drive innovation. This can be seen with autistic inventions throughout history. Autistic employees, however, need special environments to thrive in, and must be allowed reasonable workplace accommodations. With one in every forty-four human births classified as autistic, the talent pool of autists is growing. The opportunity to use autistic thinking will enhance the growth of civilization and will benefit all of humankind.

Autists are good for companies because autists think differently than non-autistic people. Dr. Grandin jokes, in a serious way, that autists need to “go work in Silicon Valley,” which is the center of the technology industry. She says the autistic brain is well-suited to connect with computers. Autists are useful and needed in the sector, and can find success there, she says. According to Grandin, the autistic brain is a “specialized brain” and solves problems others cannot: the autist sees tiny details, notices patterns, and envisions macro results easily. In Grandin’s case, her autistic brain allowed her to make unique observations in animal science. She studied the sounds of cows and was able to determine what was bothering them. She perceived what the cattle needed, and she built designs based on her observations. These designs revolutionized over fifty percent of the North American livestock industry and have expanded into the global market. Grandin’s innovations created a standard for the humane treatment of animals in a slaughterhouse. Because of her contributions, Grandin was named one of Time magazine’s top one hundred most influential people in 2010.

Dr. Grandin says that some autists are visual thinkers, like her. These are good candidates for careers in computers, photography, and graphic or industrial design. Visual autists see life as a movie and can use the skill in the workplace. They have a natural ability to understand lines and texture. These are valuable design employees because they can imagine an invention with accuracy. They can also remember the feel of an object—exactly. Inventor Nikola Tesla was this way, and he could see his designs in vivid detail before they were built. An employee with a mind like this can save company costs in research and development, and in prototyping. Other autists, according to Grandin, are pattern thinkers. Pattern autists see life in systems and are ideal computer software programmers and engineers. These are people who think and talk in numbers. They can magically declare ratios, percentages, and math answers without using a calculator. Visionary Elon Musk thinks this way. He sees the result—which is outside of anything anyone has ever done—then hires engineers to build his designs. Pattern autists may look at sheet music and perceive the sound of a song before it is played. Musicians who are pattern autistics hear music in patterns, or blocks. Instead of playing the given notes, the player plays systems of number groupings like threes or sevens. An example of this is pianist and master composer Amadeus Mozart, who could memorize musical works by age four. Two hundred and fifty years later, his contributions in classical music continue to dominate the genre.  

In the workplace, a pattern autistic employee can bypass learning sequences because the autist absorbs information through large-scale pattern recognition. Such talent usually excels at any genre of engineering. In astroscience, for example, pattern thinkers are faster at calculations because the thinker understands how the math fits together, like pieces to a puzzle. This is valuable for aerospace companies like SpaceX, for example, who seek to meet intense deadlines before a U.S. legislative moratorium on launch liability expires in 2025. If the company has workers who can bypass regular learning, the company can achieve more—faster—and meet its goals to dominate the launch market. Therefore, autistic pattern thinkers give companies high speed calculations, and big-picture scenarios.

Dr. Grandin says there is a third kind of autistic mind: the “verbal logic” thinker. Verbal autists, those who naturally memorize dates and facts, make talented journalists and actors, such as iconic Hollywood actor Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins won an Academy Award for his portrayal of the intelligent monster in Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins’ deadpan face and intelligent demeanor allowed him to bring Dr. Hannibal Lecter to life. These autists have excellent memories—they know dates, names, and events in detail. An autistic journalist, for example, might recall that President Kennedy spoke at the U.N. General Assembly on September 25, 1961. Verbal autists are excellent observers and fact holders, and a valuable source of information for companies. They excel as think tank support to executives who need historians—or for space companies who need detailed and accurate science fiction summaries.

In general, autists are hyper-focused, and they are resistant to change. According to the diagnostic criteria for autism, autists usually have “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus,” and they engage in repetitive actions. Autists are like a machine or a computer that stays on task indefinitely. They prefer to finish the fixation that has them in hyperfocus, and changing course causes “great stress and difficulty.” Autists naturally work in the self-actualization level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a system developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow to explain human progression. The tip of the hierarchy pyramid is peak state. This is where nothing else matters and an individual works for higher purpose innovation, or on dream fulfillment. Autists usually have poor function in the lower parts of the pyramid—in areas of self-care, social interaction, and goal setting, but they exceed at peak performance. This strength is a resource for companies because it generates higher output of creative productivity and because the autist is unlikely to stray from the directive, or to resign from the company. Therefore, autists offer low employee turnover and high employee focus.

Autists are also happy to mind their own business and keep working. The criteria explains that this is because autists have: “Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging…from abnormal social approach and failure of (neurotypical) back-and-forth-conversation…to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect,…to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.” This means that autists find it hard to make friends, and they have little interest in doing so. Although society may disapprove of the autist’s lack of friendship, companies benefit from autistic employees’ reluctance to socialize—it increases production time and saves money on time-sensitive overhead. Autists are also loyal. Temple Grandin, when asked if an autistic child can love his parent, replied, skirting the question: “You better believe that if that parent is in a house that’s on fire, the child will pull the parent out.” Autists stand by those they belong to, such as the company they are employed by. Autists will fight for their employer and will invent ways to overcome adversity. Autistic employees are intelligent, driven, compliant, loyal, and hard-working. They are a valuable part of the workplace because they push innovation and increase profits.

Successful autists have made pivotal contributions to human civilization. Mathematician and autist Isaac Newton, for example, gave humanity calculus and the laws of gravity. His discoveries are used today to predict trajectories of moving objects. Because of Newton’s laws, humans can calculate when something will land, such as an apple falling from a tree or an asteroid entering earth’s atmosphere. Newton’s laws guide engineering in building and transportation, and they explain gravitational life on Earth, including why Earth is suspended in space, and why the moon is locked into gravity with it. Without Newton’s laws, astrophysics—rocket science—and NASA, along with all the other space agencies in the world, would wane. This is because, hypothetically, it is not possible to launch ships to space without first understanding the laws of gravity.

Inventor Nikola Tesla, another autist, also made significant contributions to humanity. He gave the world modern electricity, radios, and the foresight of wireless communications. His inventions transformed civilization in the twentieth century and are still used today, a century later. Because of Tesla’s inventions, humans can turn on lights, plug appliances in, and use a mobile phone. Albert Einstein, another autist, gave humanity nuclear power and the theory of relativity. He expanded on Newton’s laws, explaining that gravity changes when the space-time fabric stretches due to mass. Therefore, gravitational trajectories are skewed near a massive object such as a black hole. His contributions to space science form the foundation for future space travel. Because of Einstein, humans have accurate calculations for cosmic navigation, and they know how to make renewable nuclear energy.

Another autist, engineer and economist Elon Musk, revolutionized access to outer space by inventing reusable launch rockets. Today, Musk works to construct a city on the planet Mars, and to establish interplanetary internet services. Musk built online payment company PayPal, electric vehicle company Tesla, aerospace company SpaceX, and brain interface company Neuralink. His electric cars have revolutionized the clean energy transportation sector and influenced traditional car companies to switch to electric propulsion. Musk’s Neuralink brain chip will begin human trials in 2022. The invention is expected to cure paralysis by joining the human brain with AI technology. Musk’s innovations will change the course of humanity. He is spearheading a civilization that is secure, functioning, and connected. 

Innovators Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, also autists, brought computers into the world—the very computer that the reader is using today. This has globalized modern civilization. Humans in developed countries now use computerized systems for security, water, food, energy, communications, transportation, commerce, entertainment, and education. These inventions have propelled humanity into the information and technological age—a time when humans can access any information they wish, and an era when the use of technology is growing exponentially. In centuries past, this would have been considered something supernatural: it would have been called magic. The advanced contributions of these innovators have brought humanity to a new era. Therefore, autists are pillars in human civilization.

To thrive, however, autists need acceptance in the workplace. The autistic brain is not keen on understanding consequences or life skills such as daily self-care tasks like personal hygiene, time management, planning, and social etiquette. Companies can support autistic employees by hiring mentors to mediate and coach workplace culture. These advocates make sure autists are functioning and have what is needed for success. The mentors are a buffer between the employer and the autistic employees, and they clarify expectations for both sides. They coach employers on the importance of a calm workspace and encourage bosses to ease the requirements for normal social responses, such as handshakes, eye contact, and smiling. They also coach supervisors on how to speak to autistic employees in direct language, and how to ease the introduction of abrupt changes in workflow.

For the employees, a mentor might define the signs of sexual misconduct, and the rules for physical interaction in the workplace. An autist may not realize, for example, that staring or getting very close to a person is considered intimate behavior. Because autistic employees need coaching on workplace interactions, the mentor can explain the importance of making eye contact with bosses and peers, and how to read other people’s facial expressions, such as smiling, or frowning. The autist may need a system of looking at someone for a count of three, then looking away for a count of five, then looking back at the person for a count of three to make eye contact. With company mentors, autists can stay productive, and their employers can celebrate having a talented workforce.

Autists also need calm, isolated environments to function in. Autistic employees may need an empty, private office with low lighting, or they may need to use virtual reality goggles at work, or headphones and sunglasses. This is because autists have environmental sensitivity. When placed in loud, colorful, and social environments, autists experience sensory overload, and they must continually escape and recharge, taking time away from creativity and production. This is because autists are affected by smells, noises, textures, and lighting. It is hard for them to process overstimulation. Therefore, companies must limit social interactions with autists in the workplace, and companies must provide quiet, safe places for the autist to work in. If autistic employees are forced to experience an undesirable environment, the employees will fail to function; and fail to innovate. By eliminating mental noise, employers allow autistic employees to focus on company directives, and on production.

Some critics object to special treatment for autists. They say that people with the capacity to rule the world in economics and technology should not be given “VIP” considerations. Special accommodations are a show of favoritism, and a workplace distraction. Autists, they say, are not disabled—but gifted. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk became three of the richest people ever and will be remembered throughout history for their abilities. Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, and Mozart were also successful people. Temple Grandin is a successful person. She is a university professor and a public speaker who is well known for her inventions. People of this ability should not be allowed to skip company meetings and to wear headphones and sunglasses at work when others are not. If an autist goes to a meeting, everyone must be under low lighting and keep their voices down and clear the table for that one autistic person. It’s an unbalanced approach because there are, on average, forty-three regular people for every one autistic. Also, the autist receives small repercussions for having an outburst when the environment is undesirable, but if normal people had such an outburst, they would be disciplined. This is disruptive and unfair, they say.

Although it is true that autists are gifted and talented, and that famous autists have found success, these individuals would not have succeeded without safe environments. Autists are like foreigners who speak a different language and who observe a different culture. The neurotypical culture is shocking to autists, who value living in protective bubbles. To live outside of the autistic bubble is traumatizing for the autist, who struggles to adapt to the explosion of the senses found in the neurotypical world. This is why eighty-five percent of adult autists are unemployed and most live dependent on their parents: autists do not make good impressions in job interviews because they are socially anxious, and they find it painful to participate in activities outside of the home.

Critics may say it is favoritism to give autists special workplace accommodations, but for the autist, it is a matter of self-preservation. Because autists live in a world where ninety-eight percent of people are not autistic, autists suffer from trying to survive in an environment that is set up for neurotypicals. Workplaces are bright, loud, and social. Distracting items are everywhere. People must work on teams and have consistent interaction with supervisors and peers. This causes disability in autists because of sensory overload. The Americans with Disabilities Act offers protections for autists in the workplace, and states that employers must make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities. It is true that accommodations are a disruption and a distraction, but these disruptions are minor. It takes little effort to allow autistic employees to stay in their office, working. This drives innovation and is an easy tradeoff for the benefit of having skilled and loyal talent.

Instead of telling autists how to behave properly, people should ask autists what they are working on. If autists made the first tools, they will also be the inventors who protect humanity from extinction. Autists are valuable minds that innovate and propel civilization. “What would happen,” asks Dr. Grandin, “if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done.” The autistic gene is part of human evolution. It has given humanity computers, electricity, nuclear power, space travel, transportation, entertainment, mass agriculture, running water, communications, and access to education. Autism is what drives humanity forward. It must be welcome and accommodated in the workplace.

Rebecca Schembri is a Social Science graduate student at Harvard University. She is from Reno, Nevada, USA.

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