Autism, employment and tech
July 10, 2016 12:41 PM   Subscribe

"Autism is seen like some sort of mental superpower where we can see math in the air. In my experience, this isn’t really the case." - Dispelling some myths about the autistic wunderkind programmer. Also: Why you might not want to get TOO excited about autism employment initiatives. Autism FAQ
posted by Artw (29 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
...yeah autistic people are not like, magic people you can use as a secret weapon to rush your techno-consumerist armada of product lines to market.

All of the linked articles are excellent reads.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:15 PM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

as someone on the spectrum in the arts, oh i have stories.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:36 PM on July 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Wow, that Alex St. John guy sounds like a truly vile person.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:37 PM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

Never assign the design of what should be a tiny simple xml config file to someone that insists that every possible permutation of never to be actually used variables be comprehensibly accounted for and validated. Hundreds and hundreds of lines of brittle stuff for three Y/N flags...
posted by sammyo at 3:24 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tiny, simple, XML, pick two, or XML.
posted by zippy at 3:34 PM on July 10, 2016 [18 favorites]

We can't decide whether to fetishize mental conditions or denigrate those who have them. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we did neither?
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 3:36 PM on July 10, 2016 [24 favorites]

Yeah if you guys want to get really disgusted, try working for an ABA agency as a person on the spectrum and see how much discrimination there is.

...not that I'm bitter or anything.
posted by Drumhellz at 4:22 PM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think my son actually does see math in the air! I mean not literally but I have been thinking that he thinks in numbers in a strange way. He's 6 years old but capable of 3rd or 4th grade math. If we go to the store and I have 100$, I can tell him the price of each item I put in the cart and he can keep an accurate running tally, it's crazy. Also he's constantly converting numbers on the fly, 5 minutes becomes 300 seconds, it's not even something he needs to calculate anymore, they just are interchangeable in any context. Sometimes he will tell me the time in minutes instead of hours, or seconds... and I always have to take longer than I care to admit to do the mental math and see if it adds up. He's just a marvel. But he's still 6 years old so after saying some profound smart thing he'll follow it up with "hahaha fart!" And all is right again with the world.
posted by Hazelsmrf at 4:26 PM on July 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Sangermaine: "Wow, that Alex St. John guy sounds like a truly vile person."

Sorta previously
posted by Pinback at 4:29 PM on July 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

That this is even a question is a complete misunderstanding of what autism is like. Aspergers maybe, but in general autism isn not a simple disorder but involves people with scrambled brains that do not work.

It is a severe disease that causes people not to function in society. At all. Not just become non-coders, but actually becoming incapacitated humans that can barely communicate with the outside world.

It's not a quirk. It's a severe handicap. Quit embellishing it.
posted by destro at 4:31 PM on July 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

They don't differentiate between Asperger's and autism anymore so you will see more people confusing HFA with severe autism. I wish they hadn't gotten rid of it, it makes a difference when I say "my son is autistic" and "my son has Asperger's syndrome", people have very different ideas of what each means even though now they are all just "autism".
posted by Hazelsmrf at 4:38 PM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

destro, apologies if you do know what you're talking about, but to me it sounds an awful lot like you're the one with the complete misunderstanding of what autistic spectrum disorders are like.
posted by ambrosen at 4:47 PM on July 10, 2016 [13 favorites]

I mean, they call it a spectrum for a reason. It's wrong to depict people with autism as all being genius coders and model employees for employers who are total assholes, but it's also wrong to depict people on the spectrum as all being "incapacitated humans that can barely communicate with the outside world." It's a complex disorder that manifests in really complicated and varied ways. People with autism aren't all anything.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:49 PM on July 10, 2016 [17 favorites]

I think it would be helpful to recognize that people with autism are, you know, people. As in, complex. Different. Some are happy. Some aren't. People have different levels of skills. People adapt to their disabilities and differences in different ways. But, you know, people are people. They have personalities. They have feelings. They are complex. They are different. You know, like people are.
posted by soundproof at 4:59 PM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

If for nothing else than an (anecdotal) sense of balance, I'd like to chime in from the "autism gives me super-powers" camp. Yes, we exist, and yes, if our employment or research situation plays to our strengths we can commit serial acts of effectiveness as to make a neurotyical's head spin.

If you think that's bragging, please do bear in mind that me and people like me experience daily fails attempting activities neurotyicals take for granted. I may be able to perform $SUPERPOWERED_FUNCTION but later that same day I'll probably take the wrong bus and get lost.

Any idea how humiliating it is for an adult man to get lost in his own neighbourhood? Repeatedly?

I can $MANIPULATE_COMPLEX_ABSTRACTION but I can't recognize people I know if they brush their hair differently or wear new clothes. Not an Earth-shattering disability but, well, it comes up often. The frequency of micro-crises can wear a fellow down.

Spectrum dwellers aren't living clichés, that's true. But that's not to say some of us aren't that way. I'm not the poster child for stereotyped autism, but I have to admit dude in the poster does resemble me a lot.
posted by Construction Concern at 5:58 PM on July 10, 2016 [22 favorites]

I guess this isn't the place to give a nuanced reflection on my own lived experience, anyway. My brain works pretty well, thanks. But I can't persuade people of that in a job interview. The questions are too open ended. I make as much as a mess of that as sammyo's much resented and mismanaged colleague made of the XML config file. And now I'm in a good job where my goals are clear and I do good work. And when I failed to explain to a neurotypical colleague why I couldn't just get the computer to read through the text files I was reading through because that'd need AI, I was able to tell my manager that the discussion had gone wrong on the 5th "no that's not possible" exchange and my exasperation had burst out, that was something I had the tools to fix.

Anyway, I'm puzzled by much of the response to this article. I didn't see much about autistic super powers in the articles. I'd say I've got some, but they're pretty hard to deploy in a work environment.
posted by ambrosen at 6:08 PM on July 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

I have HFA, and it's less of a spectrum and more of a heat map of various symptoms. These symptoms can be exacerbated by a lot of various environmental and biological inputs (food I've eaten, the weather, hormones, social interactions) on a daily or even hourly basis.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:26 PM on July 10, 2016 [7 favorites]

With regards to the first article ... I agree with most of the points the writer makes (although I feel like an apprenticeship program is probably exploitive for other reasons), but I really wish they had chosen to profile someone older. I have nowhere near the breadth of experience to discuss what it's like to have an ASD in the workforce, and I'm nearly a decade older than Gillmer.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 6:28 PM on July 10, 2016

Also yeah I am a savant in some areas that baffle and wow many but sort of an idiot in others (seriously, how does a grown women still put her underwear on inside out and backwards and not notice until it's bedtime)?
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:30 PM on July 10, 2016 [3 favorites]

From Michael John Carley's piece, QFMFT:

...most Fortune 500 companies’ Diversity & Inclusion strategies are stuck on gender and race (though some were dragged kicking and screaming to accommodate the LGBTQ community). Disabilities, especially non-apparent disabilities, have yet to have their day in corporate court. Until this changes, we will always be doing 90% of the assimilating needed to make the relationship work.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 7:08 PM on July 10, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have HFA and have actually worked as a tester at one of the organizations referenced in the Huffpo article. I had an overwhelmingly bad time at it, and I feel like it's important to share my experience of what happened.

My biggest problem with the organization was that it went with a 'one size fits all' approach for job tasks. Even though it hired people across the spectrum, tasks tended to be mind-numbingly repetitive, and geared towards people who could handle this. There wasn't really any expectation that people coming in had a wide variety of skillsets, and might be useful in various different capacities.

This mentality carried over to any help that the organization offered. There were a lot of social events, which I appreciate, but very few events dedicated to connecting employees with companies that might hire individuals with HFA. There was also a distinct lack of training that would let employees advance to a more challenging QA role at another company. I only remember one training lecture from my time there, and there was very little emphasis on teaching Selenium, even though it has a large presence throughout the QA industry.

Anyway, I don't want to talk badly of the most of the non-profits doing this work. I understand it's a difficult job, and I'm sure many of them are doing fine in these different areas. Still, I think it's useful to open up this discussion so that these organizations can better serve all of their employees. The approach taken actually worked for a lot of people working there, and it was a viable strategy in many ways. But it's important that these non-profits recognize that people are on a spectrum and help them out appropriately.
posted by omredux at 2:12 AM on July 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

The first guy clearly values HFAs because he thinks we resemble machines. This is why he's assuming we're valuable employees, in the traditional industrial sense that since the Industrial Revolution people have been valued for their resemblance to machines.

The problem HFAs have with employment situations is that we DON'T resemble machines. For one thing, we don't all have the same spec, nor are we all likely to function well in a standard workplace environment (open-plan with programmers seated next to a call centre). Personally, the ONLY thing I need is quiet working conditions, and it's out of the question for ANY company in industry to provide that.

And I mean obviously it's overt discrimination to say that because we are machines we can work twice the usual hours with minimal fuel, downtime and maintenance. That reminds me of the argument that companies should hire more women programmers because you can hire senior skillsets for junior salaries.
posted by tel3path at 7:43 AM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

oh my god this guy is a total asshole.

From the PDF:

RULE 1: You don’t recruit and retain male engineers you recruit and retain Wives and Girlfriends
• If the wife or GF is unhappy the engineer is gone
• If the relationship breaks down the engineer is gone
• The paycheck goes to HER
• Why does SHE want her husband or BF to work for you?

Okay cishet dumbass, whatever you say.
posted by Annika Cicada at 12:00 PM on July 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Guardian's been doing some spectacularly good coverage on autism recently. It's well worth a look. I think the videos below are the best bit of it, but do check the whole section out:
  1. Autism: the restaurant steak that roared – video
  2. Autism: a carpet made my son feel as if he was drowning
  3. Autism: getting lost in London
Without showing any white boys and their concerned mother, which is even better.
posted by ambrosen at 2:04 PM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

OMG the steak that roared video is spot on.

My mom and my friend were at a sidewalk restaurant and my mom was insistent that we needed to sit outside, and the only table available was next to two women one of whom whistled when she talked. They might as well have sat me next to a lump of Kryptonite, obviously.

Neither of them could hear it, but I said to them look if we're gonna sit here I have to put my noise-cancelling headphones in. Because they're a combination of Good People and also on the spectrum themselves, they marvelled at how I could hear something they couldn't perceive at all but they also put up with me tuning out of the conversation for the entire meal.

And they were running out of battery so I had to sit hunched with them plugged into my spare battery which is inside my wallet which is inside my bag which was on my lap and I don't know why she swallowed the fly.

But on the whole, it was a very nice evening.
posted by tel3path at 2:23 PM on July 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow, that Alex St. John guy sounds like a truly vile person.

I worked with him. You have no idea.
posted by KathrynT at 3:20 PM on July 11, 2016 [8 favorites]

Dear god.
posted by Artw at 3:34 PM on July 11, 2016

Oh KathrynT...that comment requires stories as evidence.

There are so many objectionable parts to that slideshow.

Can someone also explain what he means when he says "wage-slaves"?
posted by guster4lovers at 4:36 PM on July 13, 2016

OK! So when I say "I worked with him," what I mean is that I was a contract/temp employee (dash trash, in Microsoft parlance) in the DirectX group along with Alex, Craig Eisler, and Eric Engstrom. They were all VERY high level employees, and I was very much not, so I didn't interact professionally very closely with any of them. But the culture in that group was insane1, with virtually no work-life balance at all2, 3, so I had the opportunity to see Alex in more, uh, informal4 settings pretty frequently.

My most memorable personal interaction with him was when he cornered me at beer o'clock and ranted at me extremely venomously about his divorce. I was one of a small handful of female workers in the group, and I was almost certainly the youngest at 22. For the better part of an hour, I got treated to a personal VIP tour of Alex's issues with women, most notably his fury that she had hired a competent attorney to represent her claim. "With my money!" he kept yelling. "She took the kids to visit her parents and never returned, and she thinks she deserves ANYTHING! And she wants ME to pay for HER shark to take it out of MY flesh!"

In an unusual twist, he never doubted my technical ability or skill, at least not to my face, and I never saw any sign that he thought any of the women on the team were anything other than highly competent and reliable. But he had absolutely miserable open contempt for anyone who had any kind of priorities other than work5,6, and he would be very free with his lack of regard for anyone who had such poor excuses for not being at work as "My day care closes in ten minutes" or "I'm coaching my kid's Little League team and it's the playoffs" or "It's Sunday."

He always thought he was the smartest person in any room, on any topic, and he either never learned the difference between "disagreement" and "disgust" or he never cared. It was also absolutely inconceivable to him that anyone could possibly not recognize the strokes of genius that made up his every action. The whole group was so outrageously dysfunctional that someone wrote a book about it.

1. One of the PMs celebrated hitting a deadline by riding his brand new Ducati motorcycle down the hall. The carpet melted from the friction.
2. In order to encourage late nights, the top brass would frequently hire chair masseuses to come in and give massages between midnight and 2 AM.
3. This was in addition to having dinner provided for the entire group every night, weekends included, by local groups.
4. The catered dinners included beer and wine, and it was common for developers to keep hard liquor in their desk drawers, so for "informal" read "drunken."
5. It wasn't Alex personally who attempted to cajole a QA engineer in early labor into staying until the next build had finished compiling so she could run the build verification tests on it and release it to the rest of the QA team, but that was definitely his influence at work.
6. This wasn't reserved for mothers, either; one of the gold star developers had left his pager in his desk when his wife went into labor with their first child, and only logged on to the VPN for long enough to send email saying "I'll be on paternity leave for the next 4 weeks" and then disabled his VPN access. The GPM called him at home to demand he come in until the next release deadline, a couple weeks out, and when the developer said "Nope" he said "well you need to think about your priorities, then." This turned out to be the wrong thing to say to a developer whose resume was hot enough to get him a job anywhere in the world and whose vested stock options were worth so much money that he was basically just volunteering at work by comparison.

posted by KathrynT at 1:23 PM on July 14, 2016 [5 favorites]

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