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Why We Shouldn’t Overlook Leaders with Autism

Staying inclusive of every one's skills can help support all leaders and set your company apart...

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Steve Jobs, Nicola Tesla, and Andy Warhol. These visionaries not only revolutionized their areas of expertise, but today they remain some of the most influential minds in the world.

While creativity, innovation and success unites these icons, they also share another distinct commonality: all of them lie on the autism spectrum. For some, this might come as a surprise as autism is often characterized by learning disabilities, impaired social functions and other behavioral issues. 

These symptoms certainly pose challenges, but autism shouldn’t be generalized. Social stigmas still surround those diagnosed with autism, but we shouldn’t discount those with autism as incapable leaders either. As evidenced by the innovators above, those on the autism spectrum can offer the intelligence, drive and insights that help make the world go round:

Above-Average Intelligence Helps Innovation Thrive

There is still a social stigma surrounding the hiring of workers and leaders with autism. The UN estimates that nearly 80 percent of those with autism aren’t hired in today’s global workforce. Yet, when they are under-utilized in the workforce, it causes a great disadvantage for everyone involved. Over half of those diagnosed with autism have above-average intelligence and its that high IQ that helps leaders on the autism spectrum think creatively and solve problems in ways that others may not have recognized. 

New research actually indicates that there are three distinct thought patterns in people with autism. Some are visual learners who have difficulty with more logic-based learning, the second type of learners are verbal specialists who are good at talking and writing, but have less developed visual skills. The third are pattern thinkers (like Daniel Tammet) who succeed at math and music, but have a more difficult time reading or writing. Yet, just because these different thought patterns present hardships doesn’t mean we should undermine the leaders that have them. 

Workplaces can instead incorporate better ways to support leaders with autism so that they can be a crucial part of any business or industry. To support them, businesses may consider better project management solutions and automated lesson plans for those who have difficulty reading or writing. Further investing in visual tools like VR or integrated gamification software can help those with autism learn in fun and social ways.

What’s more, innovative tools like smartstones and musical cubes help those with autism use social play to learn and think.

With these tools, it can help harness the high intelligence of those with autism as entrepreneurs, managers and other leaders. Keep in mind that every leader has their faults, but those on the spectrum can offer mastery and insight that help businesses become even more successful.

The Passion to Create Change

Often, those with autism experience intense feelings, hyperfocusing on the areas they’re most passionate about. This is a amorable characteristic to harness in leadership as the passion to create is essential to solving the world’s greatest problems.

Greta Thunberg, for instance, says she became influential because of her autism, not in spite of it. Bluntness is a common trait of those on the autism spectrum. 

“I see the world a bit different, from another perspective,” Thunberg told New Yorker reporter Masha Gessen. “It’s very common that people on the autism spectrum have a special interest. I can do the same thing for hours.” Of course, for Thunberg that special interest was climate change and she couldn’t understand why everyone on the planet wasn’t similarly obsessed with preventing it.

Once committed to an issue, those with autism are often known for being proactive with their passions. That’s the type of leadership we need to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The Movement to Bring Cognitive Diversity into the Workplace

No matter the type of leader, workplaces are beginning to consider the importance of leaders with autism. A movement is growing for neurodiversity in the workforce because of the bias and other barriers that those on the autism spectrum face. 

In 2011, for example, the Autism at Work program grew from a side project by SAP Labs’ India branch into a company initiative to have at least 1 percent of its workforce with ASD. The managing director, V.R. Ferose, took inspiration from Specialisterne, a Danish software company that hired 75 percent of its workers with ASD.

People with ASD often don’t promote themselves well, which can obviously be a huge downfall for a business leader, but the SAP program starts introducing candidates with a training round where they can individually experiment with Lego Mindstorms projects escalating in difficulty. They next move on to team challenges, followed by a five-week training period developed by Specialisterne.

Soft skills training, like social interaction and professional norms, are also provided by public or private organizations who work with the ASD candidates. Issues other new hires may not have to think about can stymie a new hire with ASD. 

After landing a job, Autism at Work participants are given mentors and team buddies—existing SAP employees who volunteer—as well as a job and life skills coach usually provided by a partner group. Think about if we did this with leaders? Or if we included more leaders with autism as part of a trio of founding members. This way, autistic leaders could allow their voice more accurately heard in the workforce. 

Exposing more companies to leaders with autism and giving them the opportunity to train their employees for autism awareness can secure the steps to helping more of them in the workforce. Too often, they’re discounted as hard to deal with when, instead, we should be encouraging leaders on the autism spectrum to harness their ideas and work with others to bring them to fruition. Without them, we wouldn’t have the Warhols or the Darwins of the world and that would mean a less vibrant and dynamic world where evolution is put on the back burner.

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