In Britain the number of autistic adults in society has never be identified, so the role of autistic persons in IT has never really been considered from a management perspective. Bob Childs FBCS looks at the advantages of employing autistic people and the special management considerations needed.

An autistic person can make a significant contribution when given the right role and framework to work in. But to manage such a person we need to first understand what autism is.

People with autism, or Asperger's syndrome (a milder form of the condition), can be described as those who lack social skills, shy away from personal interaction and have almost obsessive attention to detail - autistic people like logical, consistent, ordered systems.

I think it is a fair assumption to make that an autistic person would be attracted to getting a job like the old fashioned IT stereotype of the computer anorak. You could further say that autistic people are attracted to the perceived unsocial stereotype and once employed in IT would help to perpetuate it.
Now IT has grown into a respected mainstream profession it has in turn generated a technical side where it is good to be 'geeky' - there is even a label for it. Autistic fascinations with technology and visual modes of thinking become seen as a passion for the job. Autistic people are motivated, like their work and can be at the top of their profession. Einstein, for example, exhibited many autistic traits.

A quick Google search on 'Bill Gates' and 'Asperger's' will throw up lots of speculation that he has some interesting autistic-like behaviours, not that he is likely to make a statement on the subject either way.

Given some structure, a totally focused task-oriented person who puts their head down and works through the detail will be a real asset to any team. IT related roles such as programming and QA spring to mind.

For supervisors the challenge is therefore in knowing how to manage such a person, to enable that person to interact with others in a way that elicits a positive response and to assist that person in avoiding negative responses that might be labelled as behavioural problems. Managed effectively, mildly autistic people are really productive team workers.

Autistic people often have narrowly defined and highly technical interests. IT systems obviously fall into this category with their inherently ordered systems and logic. Whilst an obvious generalisation, in different times these sorts of people could have been the monks who developed champagne and printing presses, whose meticulous attention to detail, with the ability to repeat the same processes hundreds of times, was the ultimate driver for success.

An autistic person may have a number of traits at different levels. You can be mildly or severely autistic in different ways. Such a person is therefore said to exhibit behaviours of someone on the range of autistic spectrum and have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

A good manager would note that the person may be exhibiting behaviours on the spectrum, and realise their best approach is not to think in terms of managing and confronting social behaviours - clamping down on perceived rudeness for example - but to facilitate social interaction and so overcome the problem in a positive manner.

Whilst a lot of work has been done with children and adolescents to identify and treat those with ASD, very little has been done with adults. Once thought to comprise only 12 in 10,000 of the population, the government now puts the figure at 1 per cent.

It is accepted that 1 per cent of the child population is autistic and for which there is no cure, only treatment, yet government is reluctant to take the seemingly logical step of accepting that in turn 1 per cent of the adult population must also be autistic.

So if roughly a million people in the UK work in IT related jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics, then at least 10,000 people in the UK IT industry could potentially be autistic, with the true figure being far higher because of their attraction to the industry. 

One reason for this lack of data could be that no one wants to be responsible for the primary diagnosis in adulthood. Doctors do not fully understand autism and physiologists would be reticent make the decision alone. Even for children it can be very difficult to get an agreed statement of special educational needs.

For an adult being diagnosed with autism could be seen as at best personally career limiting, or at worst disruptive to the family. As a result such a diagnosed person may become very defensive and fight the diagnosis. Given there is no cure, there is little to be gained by either giving or accepting such a diagnosis, so this is a road neither side wants to go down.

The upshot is that there are a number of mildly autistic people in work who have never been diagnosed as being autistic and would not consider themselves to be so. Consider this conundrum.

If you as a manager think one of your team is autistic you may never be able to say so to them, for there is unlikely to be medical proof to back you, and the individual involved is not going to thank you for referring to them as autistic if they regard themselves as merely extremely 'technical'. Equally, as diagnosis in childhood gets better, the parent may only realise they have autistic tendencies when they see behaviours discovered in their children are identical to their own

Just as Silicon Valley has seen a large population influx of computer geeks, so there is also a recognised unprecedented increase in diagnosed autism in California. One theory is that the upsurge may be due to genes more common in its high-tech workers, However the exact cause of the rise is still unknown. Cambridge, with its similar high tech profile, also has a higher than expected incidence of diagnosed autistic children.

The relatively high profile of autism in American politics meant that in 2006 a bill went straight through the US congress, unopposed, to give $945m to try and isolate the causes of autism. Whilst autism and roles in IT are seen as virtually synonymous in America, in the UK the link is not given the same prominence. Obviously we must have an employment profile that is similar, so need to recognise this 'hidden' workforce.

Where autistic people are best suited

It is recognised that the best teams are made up of differing people, each with a role to play. Many continuous improvement models exist both with the IT industry and outside of it. ITIL® would see the three cornerstones of success as being people, process and technology, with the greatest potential for improving quality and process laying in personnel issues, rather than in technological or best practise concepts.
Improving the business is often about improving the team, which is why good projects start with a consideration of the team design, recognising that optimised teams need very different people to become a force greater than its parts. This requires from management an understanding of personality, and identification of key attributes to optimise productivity and quality improvement. It is within such planned diverse teams that autistic people can really come into their own.

A number of global IT companies are beginning to formally utilise autistic persons where the project team requires diverse types of people performing differing roles. Microsoft in Denmark recognised that whilst its own people had to be client facing, creative, and handle large amount of stress, these were not the attributes required to test and QA its software.

Regression testing is by its nature extremely repetitive - boring to a creative type - and a normal person can often miss things as a result. Microsoft turned to the company Specialisterne, where over 70 per cent of the staff has ASD, to provide testing for Windows XP Media Centre.

An autistic person sees only facts; they are therefore really good at pointing out errors and aberrations and do not become easily bored. A key advantage is that their ability to concentrate remains intact, even after solving the same task repeatedly, as has to be done in regression testing.

How are autistic people different?

People with ASD have real anxiety problems relating to social situations and so need to regulate their physiological responses to stressful events. They can really lose control. You might see shouting and very aggressive language. IT is an industry where the pace of change can be very high. Conversely autistic people love order and therefore do not readily accept change, or the idea of change.

To accept change without feeling stressed about it they need to see it coming well in advance. Throwing them unexpected curve balls in front of others that put them in unfamiliar situations only asks for trouble.

The management challenge to avoid such stressful events is to ensure you give them as much prior notice as possible. An autistic person will typically have problems in three areas: difficulty with social interaction, social communication and social imagination. Problems with social imagination are not to be confused with a lack of imagination, as it is the inability to understand and interpret other people's thoughts, feelings and actions.

Socialising doesn't come naturally; an autistic person has to learn. Whereas normal people learn basic skills through exposure to social situations people with ASD often need to be taught skill explicitly.

If looking to manage a person with ASD the best  approach is that it is far easier to train a specific social skill, such as turn taking or responding to greetings, rather than big picture social functions such as 'team building'. Social interaction skills are not learnt by reading a book, the academic route, but rather through practise and performance - thinking, feeling and then doing.

This approach requires skill training by others and is one of continuous development and reinforcement rather than the learning of new skills. Peer training in this instance is far better than a course or learning online.
A good management technique could be to get the whole team to take part in 'structuring effective meetings' sessions as a group, rather then individual soft skills training. Another very effective method is to introduce mentoring schemes on a one to one basis.

The use of social persuasion or successful role models can be very effective. In both cases the person involved is not singled out but allowed to work with peers and identify with the positive attributes of others. It needs to be emphasised that priming in this manner is not to teach new behaviours but a useful way to activate existing skills and behaviours.

Persons with ASD find it difficult to attribute a mental state to others, and so cannot take another's perspective into account. They have but one view of things and often cannot to see things another way.

In IT, as in many professions, we often have to work with incomplete knowledge and accept that a number a solutions to a problem or opportunity can be all equally valid. An autistic person however cannot see that there could ever be multiple viewpoints - only their way.

Coping with non-verbal communication

A big reason people with ASD are not very good at non-verbal communication - preferring email - is that they are not looking for the cues others pick up automatically and therefore, for example, do not maintain eye contact. As they do not recognise the meaning behind another’s tone they do not know when another is trying to influence them, or agreeing or disagreeing with them.

A person with ASD will know that others are different from them but may not be able to understand the social nuances inherent in another's personality.

An autistic person may have difficulties with social initiation skills; joining a conversation of two or more people without interrupting; and demonstrating proper timing with social initiation, particularly reading cues to terminate conversation. How we terminate a conversation is important.

Rather than getting the information and then moving on there needs to be a 'thank you' or 'see you later' or formal shake of hands. The manner of terminating creates a lasting impression. Failing to get this right would perhaps add to the argument that 'X' is not client facing. A little soft skills training, like IBM training its sales staff to give the perfect handshake, goes a long way.

What would really challenge an autistic person?

Consider perhaps the greatest challenge to an autistic person in IT: a tele-conference.

We all recognise the lack of visual social clues that makes a teleconference call more difficult than a face to face meeting. Equally, as the cost of travel increases and organisations try to be green so they have become more prevalent. Your autistic person will therefore be unable to avoid tele-conferences and so will not be able to pick up the more subtle audio cues that make the process of communication easy for others.

At the start of a tele-conference, a few people will be on but not all. Rather than formally start the content of the call, typically there is some social banter while you wait. The autistic person may totally miss attempts at humour or consider others to be wasting time when asking about the weather in their neck of the woods, and so become irritated.

The call then starts. When asked a simple question that would normally elicit a quick response - for example how is the project going - the autistic person can take a long time to answer and every participant is now aware of the pregnant pause. This slow response time is because the attention to detail means every possible permutation is considered.

As the call begins the participants begin discussing one item on the agenda, however the autistic person does not want to let it go and move on. Polite repeated suggestions to take the item 'offline' and discuss outside the call are either missed or ignored as they dive into the detail and will not be dissuaded.

An item may arise where a number of approaches which are all valid could be taken. An autistic person would see only their option as being viable and cannot see any other point view and therefore does not pick up on the call organiser thanking them for their opinion - meaning the conversation should move to examine the other options.

Another option is taken and the plan changed.

Stress and anxiety kick in and the person with ASD starts to lose control over what should be a minor issue. Inappropriate comments and swearing are made and a loud tone adopted out of keeping with the rest of the call.

It is important to remember that behaviour happens for a reason, with stress and anxiety playing a significant role in triggering unwanted behaviour. It is difficult for anyone to relax when they are in a state of rage or fear, particularly if that person has little control over impulsivity and limited understanding of their own feelings. Aware management can play a supportive role here by taking over the conversation, speaking on their behalf, so allowing the autistic person space to calm down.

Many autistic people are never likely to be able to work as their condition is too severe, but for those who are only mildly autistic or have Asperger's, and are therefore capable of work, their own self training will help them in the workplace. In addition, an understanding and proactive management approach will reap rich rewards.

Tips for managing autistic people

  1. Step back from thinking you are dealing with behavioural issues and look at the bigger picture. 
  2. Be proactive in ensuring their social inclusion.
  3. Avoid surprises. 
  4. Set a defined structure and routine for their work and stick to it.
  5. Always give as much prior notice as you can for any change.
  6. Work with them in advance to define the expectations you have for meetings.
  7. Have a mentoring scheme; give them a role model to learn soft skills from. 
  8. Agree beforehand that if they start getting stressed in any client facing situation someone else can step in and articulate on their behalf.
  9. If available and appropriate, obtain qualified training and counselling for the autistic person, peer mentors and yourself.