Autists Join The Economy
Many of you sent me a link to this fascinating NYT story about a Danish company that employs autistic people as consultants to do jobs — some of them rather important jobs — that they’re better at than neurotypical people are. There are so many great passages explaining how it works that I couldn’t decide which ones to highlight. Here’s one that more or less sums up the news here:
Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University (and a regular contributor to The Times), published a much-discussed paper last year that addressed the ways that autistic workers are being drawn into the modern economy. The autistic worker, Cowen wrote, has an unusually wide variation in his or her skills, with higher highs and lower lows. Yet today, he argued, it is increasingly a worker’s greatest skill, not his average skill level, that matters. As capitalism has grown more adept at disaggregating tasks, workers can focus on what they do best, and managers are challenged to make room for brilliant, if difficult, outliers. This march toward greater specialization, combined with the pressing need for expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, so-called STEM workers, suggests that the prospects for autistic workers will be on the rise in the coming decades. If the market can forgive people’s weaknesses, then they will rise to the level of their natural gifts.
“Specialization is partly about making good use of the skills of people who have one type of skill in abundance but not necessarily others,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T. and co-author of “Why Nations Fail.” In other words, there is good money to be made doing the work that others do not have the skills for or are simply not interested in.
The story’s author, Gareth Cook, takes care to point out that it’s highly misleading to think that all, or even most, autistic people are brainiacs, or if they are, that they are capable of working in an office setting. That’s not true. Still, there are some, and it’s terrific news that our economy is finding a place to make use of their rare and particular skills.
I’m reminded of the story from Michael Lewis’s “The Big Short,” about Michael Burry, a med student who has Asperger’s, a form of autism, and who because of it was able to see deeply into financial patterns. Burry make a killing for himself and his clients as the markets collapsed. Burry was able to see things his competition couldn’t; his Asperger’s gave him the patience and insight to read the fine print.