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A Compelling Case for Hiring Someone on the Autism Spectrum

Neurodiversity can be a valuable asset to an organization

“As businesses begin to see the value that neurodiversity can bring to their organizations, more effort will be invested into understanding what can help such individuals thrive in the workplace.” – Sarah C. Bauer and Willemien Kets

This article was originally published by Crain's Chicago Business on April 15, 2016.

By Sarah C. Bauer and Willemien Kets

Employers are increasingly recognizing the potential of individuals with autism—AT&T, Microsoft and the Israeli Army, to name a few. Several companies recently announced the 5,000 Initiative: Autism in Tech Workforce, a national campaign with the aim of employing 5,000 people on the autism spectrum in technology positions by 2020.

Our research and clinical experience suggest that this may only be the start. Indeed, people with autism have unique qualities, including heightened visual perception skills and attention to detail, that can be of great value to employers, especially in fields where innovation is key.

PayPal founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel has remarked that many of the more successful entrepreneurs "seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger's where it's like you're missing the imitation, socialization gene” and that Asperger's “happens to be a plus for innovation and creating great companies,” as people who are less sensitive to social cues may be less prone to social conventions.

That individuals with autism spectrum disorder may be less conformist than their peers is consistent with recent research.

With colleagues at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, we presented more than 1,100 people with a questionnaire that asked for their opinions on things like how they felt about a vacation at Disney World. The catch? Participants, who represented a cross-section of the general population, were also told how other subjects had responded.

Participants who scored higher on traits that are generally associated with autism spectrum disorder tended to be less conformist in their responses: Those who find it difficult to take another person's perspective are more likely to choose a response that differs from the majority.

This can be of great value. After all, the majority may get it wrong, as was the case with the mortgage crisis in 2008. Many experts were blindsided by the sudden collapse of the subprime market. However, hedge fund manager Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale in the film "The Big Short," correctly forecast a collapse as early as 2007.

Burry has autism spectrum disorder. He has said it explains, at least in part, how he was able to persist in betting against the subprime market, even when major investors wanted to pull their money from his fund. Burry and his fund profited accordingly.

At the same time, harnessing these strengths can be challenging. While those with autism may have a lot to offer employers, a seamless transition into the workforce is not guaranteed. Most work environments involve complex social dynamics that require understanding other people's perspectives and also nonverbal communication—both of which are challenging to various degrees for individuals with autism.

Undoubtedly, as businesses begin to see the value that neurodiversity can bring to their organizations, more effort will be invested into understanding what can help such individuals thrive in the workplace.

- Sarah C. Bauer is a developmental pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago and assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. Willemien Kets is an assistant professor of managerial economics and decision sciences at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. They are fellows in the OpEd Project's NU Public Voices Fellowship.

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