Caption: The image features a man working at a laptop computer. His hands are placed on the computer. The image depicts the back of his head. To the left of the laptop are a black notebook and a black cell phone.
A number of news articles came across my laptop this week reporting on companies that are banking on neurodiversity–mainly by hiring autistic people to perform work as software testers and debuggers. On the surface, of course, this is good news. Unemployment among autistic people is high, and the many negative stereotypes surrounding autism mean that autistic people face discrimination in the job market. Companies that seek to hire autistic people are helping to change that.
However, the range of jobs for which autistic people are recruited seems rather narrow. A German firm, for instance, lists these skills: “analysis, checking and testing of highly complex systems specification, static code analysis of programs written in C, C++, C# and other languages, specification and modeling of complex work flows, migration of content-management systems, analysis and cleansing of large amounts of data by visual comparison, draft of technical manuals and documentation, and high-quality data -recording and indexing.” All of these tasks are characterized as ones that cash in on autistic people’s greater “attention to detail and … ability to concentrate on repetitive tasks for long periods of time.” Another company, Ultra Testing, touts its “competitive advantage” as stemming from “employing high functioning individuals on the Autism Spectrum, who can have the exact skill set required for software testing, e.g. pattern recognition, attention to detail, tolerance for repetition.”
Aside from the problematic language of high- versus- low functioning (which has been critiqued by individuals within the autism community), these employers also reinforce stereotypes about autistic people and their skills. Namely, their workers are cast in the role of what those in the computer science industry might call “code monkeys“–those who can perform the trivial work of programming but not the more highly valued skills of creative problem solving required for software development.
While these companies are doing some laudable in trying to expand assumptions about autistic people and their capabilities, they may not be going far enough. For one, the skills they cast as repetitive–in other words, as boring work “normal” people don’t want to do–actually do involve creativity and problem solving abilities. Writing technical manuals, at least, is a highly rhetorical enterprise, as anyone trained in technical communication can attest.
Moreover, as I argue in Autism and Gender, the type of work advertised by these companies perpetuates the image of the male autistic computer geek, one that limits our understanding of who autistic people are and what they can do. Autistic people possess a wide range of skills and interests, and might excel at any number of careers. Autistic people work as university humanities professors, as motivational speakers, as directors of non-profit and advocacy groups, as small business owners, writers, and more. I’m not saying these companies need to expand the range of their offerings. However, describing these skills as repetitive and mind-numbing does not help to dislodge negative stereotypes about autistic people or the dominant image of the male autistic computer geek.