Alan Turing was the mastermind whose role in cracking the Nazi Enigma code helped the Allies win World War II. He built a machine to do the calculations necessary to decipher enemy messages and today is hailed as the father of the computer and artificial intelligence. He’s also widely believed to have been autistic.
Turing was not diagnosed in his lifetime, but his mathematical genius and social inelegance fit the profile for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). And his story illustrates how society benefits when it gives a voice to those who think different. Until he came along, no one perceived the need for a computer; they simply needed to crack the code. It took a different kind of mind to come up with that unexpected, profoundly consequential solution.
While Turing’s renown has arguably never been higher, today we are failing to recognize the potential in millions of other talented minds all around us. Like Turing, many of them are also capable of exceptional technological expertise that can help to safeguard our nation.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 70 million people worldwide—1 percent of the global population—are living with autism. In the US, an upward trend in diagnosis means that the number of adults with ASD is expected to top 3 million by 2020. And today, according to expert estimates, 70 to 90 percent of them are unemployed or underemployed.
The common prejudice is that people with ASD have limited skills and are difficult to work with. To the extent that’s true, it’s a measure of our failure as a society. Almost half of those diagnosed with ASD are of average or above-average intellectual ability. And we have clear evidence that job-focused training and support services, especially in the transition to adulthood, can make a huge difference, leading to higher levels of employment, more independence, and better quality of life.
But few are getting such help. Programs for adolescents and adults with ASD receive less than 1 percent of all autism-related funding in the US, public and private. (Most spending is on research into the causes of the syndrome and on programs for children.) That we are not preparing these individuals for the future is more than just a personal tragedy; it’s a monumental waste of human talent.
In what kinds of jobs could we match the interests and passions of people with ASD and our country’s needs? Well, it just so happens that there is a massive labor shortage in the vital field of cybersecurity. Globally, the damage from cyber attacks by criminals, terrorists, and hostile states is projected to exceed $2 trillion by 2019. Yet the number of unfilled jobs in this area is growing and will likely reach 1 million worldwide next year.
At the same time, more than three-quarters of cognitively able individuals with autism have aptitudes and interests that make them well suited to cybersecurity careers. These include being very analytical and detail-oriented as well as honest and respectful of rules. And there are many other areas in which these talents could quite literally be employed.
A few innovative firms, including Microsoft, SAP, and Freddie Mac, already have pilot programs for hiring people with autism to fill sophisticated IT jobs and other positions. The Gates Foundation, the Milken Institute, and the Hilibrand Foundation have also funded valuable employment and research programs.
But given the coming tsunami of adults with autism, a much broader effort will be required. We need a national strategy, coordinating the efforts of public agencies, companies, and organizations, to bring these valuable minds into the workforce. Such an initiative should focus first on providing meaningful job opportunities for adults who are cognitively able and eventually branch out to more of the autism spectrum.
This effort needn’t start from scratch. Let’s begin by convening those working on the issue in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC—areas where strong research and clinical programs are up and running and where tech industry jobs are readily available. By capitalizing on this existing network, we can seed job hubs around the country for adults with autism.
These hubs would create programs to cultivate expertise in cybersecurity and would teach workplace social skills and independent living skills. They’d also work with industry partners to develop a talent pipeline and help them understand how best to integrate autistic employees.
Half a century ago, Turing’s extraordinary abilities helped us win a war and launched the technology that is still reshaping our world. Today we’re facing a new threat, and we must once again band together. This is a tremendous opportunity—to use one social challenge to solve another—and a potentially transformative moment. Let’s take full advantage of it.