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Autism & Engineering. World Autism Awareness Day April 2, 2022.

By March 31, 2022 No Comments

In a world where we are constantly bombarded with fast paced images, expectations to succeed & a relentless noise from our hive of a planet; autistic people can find the modern world a challenging & overwhelming place to live.

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC) is a lifelong spectrum disorder which affects how people communicate & interact with the world. One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum & there are around 700,000 autistic adults & children in the UK. (1)

ASD/ASC can manifest itself in different ways & each person can exhibit differing levels of ASD/ASC. Some of the more common ASD/ASC indicators are:

Social communication & interaction

Autists may take things literally, not understand abstract concepts such as sarcasm, may need extra time to process information, repeat what others say to them or appear to be insensitive, find making friends difficult & can seek time alone when overloaded when surrounded by too many people. (1)

Over- or under-sensitivity to light, sound, taste or touch

Autistic people may experience over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, tastes, smells, light, colours, temperatures or pain. Therefore, autists can find environments such as schools, workplaces & shopping centres particularly overwhelming which can cause sensory overload. (1)

Highly focused interests or hobbies

Many autists have intense & highly focused interests, often from a fairly young age. Autistic people can become experts in their special interests & often share their knowledge.

Being highly focused helps many autistic people do well academically & in the workplace.  However, they can also become so engrossed in particular topics or activities that they neglect other aspects of their lives. (1)

Extreme anxiety, meltdowns & shutdowns

Anxiety is a real difficulty for many autistic adults, particularly in social situations or when facing change. (1)

In extreme cases, autists can experience complete meltdowns. These can happen when someone becomes completely overwhelmed by their current situation & temporarily lose behavioural control.

Shutdowns are also a response to being overwhelmed, but may appear more passive, for example, an autistic person going quiet or ‘switching off’. (1)

Autism is an extremely varied social communication disorder, with autists interacting with & seeing the world in a very different way to neurotypical people.

When we look back in history at some of the scientists & engineers whose discoveries have fundamentally changed the course of human evolution; it is questionable if some of them may have exhibited autistic traits which could have assisted with the in depth thought processes & focus needed to fathom ground-breaking scientific, mathematic & engineering pioneering thought.

It is wildly considered that Albert Einstein & Isaac Newton may have been high functioning with above average intelligence. According to autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University – they might both have shown many signs of Asperger syndrome (now known as ASD), a form of the condition that does not cause learning difficulties but is in the high functioning domain of the autistic spectrum. (2)

Although Baron-Cohen admits that it is impossible to make a definite diagnosis for someone who is no longer living, he hopes this kind of analysis can shed light on why some people with autism excel in life, while others struggle. (2)

Despite Einstein having been a slow speech developer & is known to have repeated sentences to himself incessantly in his formative years; the fact that he had a quick wit, a keen sense of humour & engaged in intense personal relationships: does pose questions about a retrospective diagnosis of ASD.

However, there is a train of thought which points towards how autistic scientists & engineers may have different skills & thought processing abilities to bring to STEM & how they may benefit the work they do.

An article in The Engineer (2015) explored how certain autistic traits could be seen as positives in a STEM setting & in particular how they could benefit engineering outcomes.

The ability to think & see the world differently is an autistic trait synonymous with the discoveries made in STEM. The different brains of autistic people mean they can often approach problems in a way that neurotypical people don’t even consider. (3)

Despite some contemplating Einstein or Newton’s ASD, it cannot be denied that their ground-breaking scientific discoveries could not necessarily have been developed by a neurotypical mind & that their ability to think ‘differently’ was a major contributing element to their outcomes.

However, one autistic ability which certainly does complement engineering, is the ability to think in pictures.

Dr. Temple Grandin explores in her paper Thinking in Pictures (1996) Chapter 1: Autism and Visual Thought, how her autism has allowed her to be successful in her engineering career supporting the livestock industry.

“I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, their words are instantly translated into pictures.

Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter.

Now, in my work, before I attempt any construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction.

Being autistic, I don’t naturally assimilate information that most people take for granted. Instead, I store information in my head as if it were on a CD-ROM disc. When I recall something I have learned, I replay the video in my imagination.” (4)

Therefore, if we can understand that certain autistic traits could be beneficial to & have possibly been instrumental to ground-breaking advances in science & engineering; is there a genetic link between autism & engineering?

In 1997 Simon Baron-Cohen made the controversial connection between autism in children & a propensity for engineering in their parents. Further work with students at Cambridge University suggested that engineers, mathematicians, physicists, & computer scientists have a way of thinking that is quantifiably “more autistic” than that of their peers in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. (5)

To some, this sounded like a medicalized stigmatization of nerdiness & others feared that linking children’s disabilities to their parents’ inclinations was a new way of blaming the parent. Baron-Cohen rejected this & argued that linking the styles of thinking that society has come to value is helpful, not harmful. (5)

The intention of this article is to highlight how autism in STEM can & most likely has made some of the most fundamental changes to science & engineering & how some of the inherent autistic traits such as problem solving/thinking in pictures/focus can complement an engineering setting.

Therefore, despite autism creating some social boundaries which are a constant challenge; there are elements of ASD which can enable people to excel in their chosen STEM field, making impactful contributions to scientific & engineering endeavours.

Written & cited by Katy-Jane Mason for & on behalf of Dolphin N2.

NB: The information herein has been collated using public access information & in no way is meant as a psychological analysis, nor do any members of the Dolphin N2 team claim to be experts in the field of autism or spectrum disorders.