Autistics in the Silicon Valley

While attempts to increase the size of the Autistic work force are laudable, it is important to critically think about how these attempts are executed.

by Erika Lynn Abigail on August 11th, 2014

Autism. The word conjures up a variety of stereotypes, from Dr. Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory to non-speaking people who can barely interact with society, who rely on parents or other guardians to take care of them for life.

It also, in many circles, conjures up the tech industry, a place where intense coding work, long time commitments, and low emphasis on having a social life (at least stereotypically), seem to be ideal for Autistics to work.

And while there are some Autistics in the Silicon Valley — some openly Autistic, others not — in recent years, several major companies, most notably SAP, have taken an explicit interest in hiring more Autistics into specifically supported programs, mostly in de-bugging and product testing, to take advantage of the natural proclivity some Autistics have for the tech world.

While attempts to increase the size of the Autistic work force are laudable — currently, the Autistic unemployment or underemployment rate is around 80% — it is important to critically think about how these attempts are executed. Autistics are often thought of in stereotypical terms — the quirky Aspie, the pitiable burden, the anti-social hacker super genius — and these programs unintentionally reinforce these stereotypes.

Aerial shot of Silicon Valley.

CC-BY Patrick Nouhailler, filtered.

Challenging Niche Perceptions

You might have noticed several unusual things about how I discuss Autism. I’ve capitalized Autism, and I have not once used the word “disorder” or “syndrome” in tandem with it. I also say Autistic, rather than “person with autism” — the term Autism Speaks, an organization despised by most Autistics and many of their parents, would prefer you to use.

Technically, Autism is listed as Autism Spectrum Disorder in the DSM V, though many Autistics, myself included, liken this to homosexuality and transsexuality being listed in previous DSMs. All three are differences, and aspects of those differences are rooted in neurology, development, socialization, and environmental factors. We contend that these differences are not disordered nor disordering; yet we also contend that these differences disable and gift us.

There are two main models of disability. The most prominent is the medical model, which is based on the assumption that differences, regardless of their effect, must be fixed. According to the medical model, the person’s impairment or limitation is what causes the disability.

Then there is the social model, which, as the name suggests, looks at disability from a larger systems perspective. According to the social model, the person’s difference, their limitation or impairment if you will, is not what disables them; rather, it is the interactions with society that do not accommodate for their differences which causes disability.

Autism is set of developmental differences. The types of differences Autistics experience vary greatly, but there are several main types of differences. We tend to have difficulty with social interactions, such as being easily overwhelmed by groups of people, have difficulty with communication, such as misunderstanding tone and facial expressions, and sense the world around us in vastly different ways, like being hypersensitive to certain noises.

According to the medical model, these differences are inherently disabling and disordered, whereas the social model of disability suggests these differences to be disabling only in the context of a society in which the non-Autistic, also known as the Allistic, is the expectation.

This might seem like useless, abstract theory, but it actually is incredibly relevant to Autistic job placing programs. Many of these programs and companies dedicated towards placing more Autistics in the workplace staunchly rely on the medical model of disability when discussing their motivation and their construction of these programs. For example, AutomonyWorks, an Illinois tech company which hires solely Autistic associates to work in website creation, testing, and de-bugging, is a supporter of Autism Speaks, and uses pathologizing rhetoric when describing us. AutonomyWorks explicitly states on their website that they believe they are helping relieve the US of a tiny portion of the ‘Autistic burden’ by exclusively offering Autistics these associate jobs.

If a tech company wants to seriously engage Autistics in the work environment, they must comprehend that we are not burdens, and that we are competent. By seeking us out as employees, they are not helping rid society of a problem.

Specialisterne USA, the American branch of the Danish company Specialisterne, a much-praised organization that places Autistics in a variety of jobs mostly in the IT/tech industry, also endorses the medical model view that Autism is a disorder. SAP is working with Specialisterne to meet its new goal of having 1% of its workforce — about 600 workers — be Autistics by 2020, and has programs set up in Canada, California, Germany, Ireland, and India, to test out having Autistic workers in de-bugging and testing positions. There are many positives aspects of SAP’s programs which deserve praise. For example, special consideration in interviews is given due to the difficulty with social interaction and communication most Autistics experience. Their supervisors are also specially trained on how to deal with the specific needs of Autistics, a rarity in the workplace.

Photo of an office with rows of desks and workers at their computers or talking to colleagues.

CC-BY Phil Whitehouse, filtered.

Yet many changes must occur to make these programs truly transformative. First, SAP refers to Autistics as people “affected by autism” in a variety of statements, releases, and descriptions. This language is unacceptable.

But more importantly, SAP implies that it is only looking for a certain kind of Autistic worker, those who possess a high IQ, an extraordinary ability to focus, and a passion and competence for testing and fixing software. On the face of it, this might seem like an obvious set of requirements. But when looked at more critically, it becomes apparent that not every employee at SAP needs to meet these requirements. There are HR employees, executives, janitors, schedulers, technical writers, consultants, graphics artists, designers, and myriad other jobs at SAP that require a totally different skill set than the one SAP’s Autism programs searches for. And all of those jobs are able to be fulfilled well by Autistics. Not every Autistic, just like not every Allistic could fill those jobs. But there are Autistics available who could competently execute every different job at SAP, and by not creating transformative, systemic changes to support Autistics in all levels and divisions, SAP will never gain the full benefit of a 1% Autistic workforce.

Assumptions and Stereotypes

When people find out I go to Stanford, they form a few assumptions about me. Probably the most universal assumption made, at least among people who are “in the know,” is that I’m a computer science or engineering start-up junkie hoping to make it rich in Silicon Valley. When I tell people that I’m majoring in Earth Systems with an emphasis on Sustainable Food and Agriculture Systems and minoring in Creative Writing, they are usually shocked. I would be a disaster in the coding and software testing departments, but would be more successful in a technical writing, communications and PR role, given my fascination and interests with human language, speech patterns, and communication.

If a company like SAP wants to have 1% of its staff be Autistic by 2020, larger-scale, systemic changes must occur. Some of these changes are easy — allowing job candidates the opportunity to identify as Autistic in job interviews so whoever is interviewing them can expect less eye contact and greater need to clarify communication, for example, wouldn’t require a significant amount of infrastructural change. Another example is having an explicitly pro-stim workplace policy (A stim, short for self stimulation, can be any type of sensory activity to calm ourselves down, or express our needs or feelings).

Photo of Amy Sequenzia. Text is overlaid that says 'My name is Amy. I am a writer, a poet, an activist, a self-advocate. I am HAPPY, I am PROUD, I am AUTISTIC.'

CC-BY Ollibean, filtered.

Other changes require more deliberate thought and effort. About 15-20% of Autistics, according to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, are non-speaking, and are often labeled as low-functioning as a result. Others can’t live independently, and require constant support to eat, clean, and take care of their living environment, and often times are believed to have little to contribute to society at large, and in a work environment more specifically. Yet there are a multitude of Autistics who have demonstrated otherwise, like Amy Sequenzia, a non-speaking Autistic who cannot live independently, and is a published poet, or Sue Ruben, a non-speaking Autistic who is the subject of Oscar-nominated documentary Autism Is A World and graduated with honors from Whittier College. There are many Autistics similar to Amy and Sue who have the ability and desire to work in the tech industry, but without some structural changes, many will not have the opportunity to access work which might otherwise have been available to them.

Instead of small programs that seek to support only certain types of Autistics in certain types of job positions, I would argue that companies as a whole would be much better off implementing changes like educating hiring staff and supervisors about the distinct needs of Autistics, so that Autistics can be openly welcomed at all levels and departments, and simultaneously have our needs respected. This puts more responsibility on the company, but the flip side is that they can have a more neurodiverse staff, with our gifts spread throughout a variety of departments, wherever our interests and skills fit best.