A waste of talent? Making space for autism in engineering

7 min read

Viewpoint Engineering is missing out on the skills of people on the autistic spectrum, and can do much to make workplaces comfortable for them, argues Ivan Zytynski of fluid handling company Bete

What would you think if I told you that there was a group of people within our society that probably contained amongst their members some of the greatest engineers, scientists and inventor’s humanity has ever produced? Amongst its members are likely to be Einstein, Tesla and Newton as well as many of the luminaries that were responsible for the dotcom boom and the explosion of Silicon Valley in the world’s most concentrated area of business wealth. I presume you would, as engineering companies would want a way to identify this group of people and to get them to work for their business if possible. What if I went on to tell you that only 15% of this group actually find full time work as adults? Would you think this was nonsense? Or would you be worried as to how we can allow this waste to happen? The more business savvy might immediately see this as an opportunity ready to be exploited and I would agree entirely.

Notoriously difficult to get along with and ruthlessly focused, Isaac Newton is now believed to have been on the autistic spectrum

The group I am talking about is the autistic people in our society. A group that now makes up about 1 in 100 people in the UK and a group that is willing and able to work but is woefully under-utilised in the workplace. More specifically it is a group whose minds are often particularly well suited to engineering work.

What is autism?

Autism is a hugely varied condition and a full detailed explanation of all its manifestation is beyond the scope of this article but very briefly: Autism is defined as a social communication disorder. Straightaway with that definition we run into some problems. A “disorder” implies that something is “wrong” with autistic people, that they are disabled or less capable than normal “neurotypical” people. This is an incorrect. Whilst some autistic people are disabled by their condition, for many their autism is better viewed as a difference in brain wiring with neither better, nor worse than a normal brain. As with any difference though, there will be strengths and weakness. The contention of this article is that the strengths of the autistic brain often outweigh significantly the weaknesses when it comes to working in the engineering sector.

The strengths of the autistic mind

The general focus is often on the weaknesses of the autistic mind. These weaknesses do need to be considered as they impact heavily of having an autism friendly work place, but first we need to highlight the potential strengths of autistic people. Specifically, the strengths when it comes to working in the engineering disciplines.

1. An ability to think and see differently

The different brains of autistic people mean they can often approach problems in a way that neurotypical people don’t even consider.

They will often bring design concepts to engineering problems that have not been thought of before. On the grand scale of human achievement we have people like Einstein, Dirac and Newton who made their ground breaking contributions to science by thinking things that lesser mortals were incapable of. There is nothing intuitive about general relativity and it took a different kind of mind to break free from the prevailing thinking.

Einstein, Dirac and Newton showed strong autistic traits although none were formally diagnosed. Clearly not every autistic person is going to be making earth shattering scientific discoveries; it takes a rare genius to do that. But on a smaller scale this ability to think differently can be immensely valuable. Would having autistic brains on the design team that can come at a problem from a different angle be of value to most firms? Could a more neurologically diverse team solve more problems, innovate better and thus have a competitive advantage? I suggest that they would and it seems the CEOs of Silicon Valley agree, as their use of autistic talent is well documented.

2. Thinking in pictures

Many autistic people have an amazing ability to visualise complex objects and literally think in pictures rather than words. A particularly good example of this is a woman named Temple Grandin. She has a PhD in animal science and has been designing slaughter houses and animal handling systems for decades. Her designs revolutionised this industry, making it far more humane and efficient. She is also autistic and her mother was told that Temple would never learn to talk or lead an independent life.

Temple attributes her engineering success to her ability to “think in pictures”. She sees how the cattle will move and react and she instinctively knows how the cattle runs and chutes need to be structured to keep them calm and moving. She sees her designs in her brain and then translates these into engineering drawings. Of course we all visualise to a certain degree but often the autistic mind will often have superior picture-thinking capacity. Does this ability to think in pictures sound like the type of thing that an engineer might find useful?

3. Focus

Many autistic people have an uncanny ability to focus intensely on a problem for hours at a time without tiring of it. Silicon Valley is full of autistic computer coders who will work 24 hour shifts making or debugging lines of computer code. Not many neurotypical people can match this level of focus. For those tight engineering deadlines, does this not sound like a big asset for any firm?

With these traits it is almost certainly true that there are many potential superstar engineers who are currently unemployed because their autism also presents some significant barriers to gaining employment.  So the savvy engineering firm who is on the lookout for new talent only needs to learn how to overcome these barriers to tap into this talent. This seems to me like an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage in the recruitment market. The question then is how do we make autism-friendly work places?

Making Autism-Friendly Work Places

It is beyond the scope of this article to cover this topic in full but a few pointers can be given as well as some suggested further reading for those who wish to embrace this opportunity fully.

The social communication issues faced by autistic people can make an interview particularly stressful for them. This means they often interview quite poorly when compared to neurotyopical people. If, however, certain modifications to the interview process are made then it is perfectly possible to “see through” the autism and assess the ability of the candidates to actually do the job. Which after all is what it should be all about!

Quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, who originally trained as an engineer, showed many autistic traits yet made huge contributions to several fields and was an instrumental member of the Manhattan Project team

Certain allowances may need to be made in the work place. The hustle and bustle of an open-plan office may be incredibly distracting for an autistic person who has sensory processing issues (a common problem with autistic people). In some cases, UV lights and other humming electrical equipment can be deafening to the autistic mind. Quiet working places or the ability to work from home will often solve these problems.

Autistic people often work better alone. When working in a team it is better to assign to them discrete tasks within the team that can be completed individually. Obviously in many situations collaborative working will be required. In these cases it is often better to develop some key workers who understand their autistic colleagues well and ensure that it is those workers who collaborate on tasks with them. Throwing an autistic person into a team of strangers to work with is probably not a good idea. They can, however, form very good, close working relationships with people they trust.

Being autistic in a neurotypical world is tough. Many autistic people have told me that the effort of interacting “normally” or trying to behave neurotypical is mentally exhausting. They need to “act” every day of their lives. Sometimes this results in burnout. A good employer needs to understand that sometimes autistic people will require down days to recharge.

This is not to say they need to work fewer hours. It is simply the recognition that, from time to time, home working or a day off to recharge may be necessary. With some flexible working patterns, this downtime can be made up by additional hours at other times in the week.

Often, autistic people struggle with loose or open instructions. If, however, they are given clear goals and instructions then they will tap into that autistic focus and get the tasks done effectively and efficiently. Most neurotypical people tend to enjoy having the freedom to interpret tasks on their own and tackle problems in their own way. Autistic people will often need some help starting and structuring a task but once they understand exactly what they need to do they will excel. In some respects, they actually respond well to micro-management, which is of course a common complaint from most workers.

Why am I writing this?

The short answer is that I have a son with autism. He’s not even five yet so is a little too young to be worrying about a career in engineering, but there are thousands of his older peers who face bleak employment futures. Only 15% of autistic adults are in full time employment in the UK. This compares to 43% of adults with disabilities in general. This, of course, is an emotive and worrying issue for me as a father but I also see this as a complete waste of talent. Taking off my father hat and looking at this objectively as the owner of a company in the engineering sector, this is potentially an opportunity to find excellent new engineers. 

My company, Bete Limited, is not a huge company and we primarily offer advice and products around nozzle and spray technology. We are small and specialist so we don’t employ hundreds of engineers but, when we are next hiring, our company will be autism ready. Will the next person we hire be autistic? The law of averages says probably not. But we will be able to make allowance for autistic candidates so we won’t discount them by mistake.

If you want to learn more then there are some resources linked below and I am always more than happy to speak to any fellow business owners or their hiring managers who want to learn more about making autism-friendly work places. My hope is that, by the time my son gets to working age, the 15% employment figure will have vastly improved.

The National Autistic Society runs courses for employers and managers about how they can make adjustments to the workplace for autistic employees, while the TUC also has quite a lengthy guide to autism in the workplace.