Temple Grandin, perhaps the world's best-known person with autism, says Silicon Valley companies are filled with people with Asperger's syndrome -- but that they'd rather not talk about it.
At the age of four, Temple Grandin still wasn’t speaking. Her father thought she should be institutionalized. It was hardly an auspicious start for the woman who would become perhaps our foremost authority on animal welfare and our best-known advocate for people with autism. In her new book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, Grandin looks at the latest brain science relevant to autism and continues her work as an ambassador of sorts to the people she refers to as neurotypicals. In a conversation with Inc Editor-at-Large Kimberly Weisul, Grandin talks about Silicon Valley, autism, and start-ups.
In your book, The Autistic Brain, you say that Silicon Valley is filled with people you refer to as “Happy Aspies” - people with Asperger’s syndrome who do not have, or want, a diagnosis.
I think Steve Jobs was probably on the spectrum; Einstein definitely would be today. I don’t name the live ones. But you can go online and look at the interviews of the heads of Silicon Valley companies. The major big companies. And you can see it.
You know, I’ve talked to several retired NASA space scientists. And they said, “Oh, I have a grandson that has autism.” You know what? I think half the people that ever worked at NASA were on the spectrum.
Why do you say that?
Look at the 60 Minutes episode where they’re all crying when the space shuttle was shut down.
Why do you think that’s indicative of autism? The space shuttle was something people had worked on for years. For entire careers.
I didn’t say it was a sign necessarily they had autism, but it’s a sign, that - well, people on the spectrum have problems with emotional control.
If we have a geographic concentration of some sort of people who are on the spectrum, and autism is somewhat hereditary--
Oh yes. Definitely.
-- does this mean that we’re going to have more kids on the spectrum than we would have otherwise?
Well, you get around Silicon Valley, especially when you visit the older tech companies, and you’ve got a lot of families with autistic kids. You’re kind of rolling the dice on both sides of the family.
Is this something people in Silicon Valley are widely aware of?
They’re aware of it but it’s not something they really want to talk about. I’ve been out to the tech areas and there are just tons of families with autism out there. It’s sort of like you multiply the genetics, and then you’re likely to get a low-functioning kid. You’re not going to get, necessarily, another coder. You’re going to get a kid that’s nonverbal with a lot of handicaps.
What I find is a lot of people that are in tech avoid the labels. They get worried. If you take the fully verbal kid who’s just kind of a quirky nerd, when he gets a diagnosis and when he gets to the work world, I think that diagnosis is actually holding him back.
What should these parents be doing?
When you’ve got a fully verbal kid who’s on the spectrum, you’ve got to stretch him. I’m seeing too many parents, they go, “Oh, poor little Justin, he’s not going to learn to drive a car.” Well, it might take a little longer, and he’s going to have to practice, practice, practice in some safe place until operating the car becomes automatic. Then you gradually go into traffic and it’s going to take a little longer because there’s a little bit of motor coordination problems. But he’s going to do it.
You can’t take these kids and chuck them into the deep end of the pool. That doesn’t work. But if you don’t stretch them, they don’t develop. I’ve got parents that are coddling their kids, and now you’ve got a kid who’s 22 years old, he’s a recluse in his room, and he’s playing video games on social security. Some of our best coders are playing video games on social security. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
What should employers know about people on the spectrum?
People on the spectrum don’t pick up subtle social cues. They need to be in a work situation with real concrete instructions as to what they’re supposed to do.
It’s sort as if logic makes the world go round rather than social [interactions]. All the social behavior has to be taught. For people on the spectrum, it can be sort of like acting in a play.
Some of your best employees are probably a little bit on the spectrum.
Does that mean they should be managed differently?
Well, you don’t be subtle with them.Let’s say the person [on the spectrum] is working in a retail store. You don’t say, “Jane, you’re too aggressive with customers.” That’s too vague. What you’ve got to do is bring Jane in, and say to her, “Watch how Suzy approaches the customer. I want you to do it like she does. You’re getting too close and too loud.” That explains it much more concretely. You say that a lot of very high-functioning people with Asperger's can be very good entrepreneurs. Why is that? Well, people with Asperger's tend to get fixated on their favorite thing, and their favorite thing could be starting a business. That would be really a good thing. The Asperger's kind of guys tend to be really good at inventing something. But they’re not so good at managing the business part of things. I’ve seen a lot of people, they are brilliant inventors and they have great ideas, and they need a good business manager. Are there meaningful differences between women who have autism and men who have it? Women tend to slip through the cracks more [and not be diagnosed]. Men tend to be a bit more rigid and it’s picked up on more easily. You write in your book that when a parent tells you that their autistic child cries when they’re frustrated, you say, “Good.” Why is that? Because then the kids not having an anger fit. That’s the alternative, and it’s not acceptable. If a kid cries when he’s frustrated, he can still have a job. But people who throw wrenches get fired.
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