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Autism and Technology: What Can Governments Do?

April is Autism Awareness Month, and there are plenty of new developments to highlight. The number of private-sector initiatives is amazing, but can governments do more? What can innovative technologies do to aid early intervention for autism spectrum disorders? Currently technology is playing a significant role for adults with autism. That being said, should governments be doing more to hire and help these talented individuals with technical skills? Here’s my view.

by / April 17, 2016

Back in 2007, the United Nations adopted a resolution to set aside April 2 as “World Autism Awareness Day.” Thousands of global organizations and international landmarks participated in “Light It Up Blue” to draw attention to autism. What’s the purpose?

  • Spreads awareness and understanding of autism
  • Celebrates and honors the unique talents and skills of people with autism
  • Brings attention to the needs of all people with autism

One of the leading organizations that advocates for children and adults with autism is the nonprofit group Autism Speaks. Their website states that 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum.

President Barack Obama issued a special proclamation in honor of the day on April 2 that was published on the Autism Speaks website. Here is an excerpt:

“From home to school and in businesses and communities around the world, people living with autism spectrum disorder contribute in immeasurable ways to our society,” Obama said. “They remind us each day that every person is born with unique talents and should be treated with respect, play an active role in planning for their futures, and feel empowered to fully participate in and contribute to their communities.”

This great movement in our society is now going beyond “Autism Awareness Month” toward being known as “Autism Acceptance Month.” The key distinction can be examined in this “Autism Acceptance Pledge.”

“I pledge to only attend, speak at or otherwise participate in autism panels, conferences and events that meaningfully involve autistic people. I choose not to give my business or my time to settings that fail to include Autistic voices in conversations about autism.”

Technology Progress

Last month, The Atlantic magazine highlighted two bestselling books on autism that were released in the past six months. The books describe the history of autism research, with a hopeful future, but a past full of mistakes. Here’s how they summarized the works:

“This history offers lessons for today’s scientists, ranging from the importance of purging presumptions about autism to the acute need for services that help people, especially adults, with the condition.”

Hopefully having learned from this shameful history of mistakes, now new technology innovation is helping in diverse ways. For example, Apple just introduced two videos on the topic. One is called Dillan’s Voice.

Google is another company that offers helpful tools, like this Virtual tour of Birmingham Children’s Hospital, which can help autistic kids prepare for upcoming visits.

Digging deeper, the Autism Speaks website offers an abundance of webinars, stories, tech initiatives and more. I strongly encourage you to visit their database with hundreds of apps that have been recommended by families, individuals and professionals in the autism community. This database contains information about platform, price, function, and a brief description of each app.

(Click here to search their online apps database.)

I also commend the autism advocacy pages, which offer state, federal and military initiatives that are available, along with current news and information on how you can get involved. For example, you can search for available resources by age and region, and tool kits are offered to families to address topic areas like employment, housing, post-secondary education and much more.

The technological progress in organizations that advocate for adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, continues to abound, creating a new and brighter future for these talented individuals.

What About Jobs?

The Huffington Post offers this article on what four major companies are doing about the autism unemployment rate.

“In total, the combined unemployment and underemployment for young adults with autism is estimated at 90 percent nationwide. People with ASD were said to have a worse “no participation” rate of unemployment than any other disability group tracked in a separate 2012 study from Washington University in St. Louis.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As noted in a 2014 report published in the Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, some people with ASD possess a number of particular traits and attributes that are in demand among employers, such as excellent visual perception and the ability to remain highly focused in certain situations.”

The article goes on to describe excellent programs by Freddie Mac, Microsoft, SAP and Walgreens.  

And there are many other great examples from the private sector. A recent viral video describes how one teenager named Sam got a job at Starbucks. The Starbucks Corporation is working hard to help individuals like Sam pursue their dreams. The video can be seen here:

As far as technology jobs, this article points out that there are more and more major tech companies that are making autism hiring a priority.

The head of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), which is the National Security Agency (NSA) equivalent in the United Kingdom, recently apologized for their treatment of Alan Turing and other homosexuals over the years.

“More than half a century on GCHQ now relies on those who dare to think differently and be different,” he said. GCHQ now includes hiring spies on the autistic spectrum or other syndromes, whom he described as “precious assets” for protecting national security.

Though there has been an evident shift in the private sector and in other countries’ governments, I am not aware of a major government push to do the same in federal, state and local governments in the USA. I believe our governments can, and should, do much more.

Possibilities can include offering jobs and internships in diverse areas — which are lacking today. Governments would benefit in the same way as Microsoft and SAP, who have discovered that many adults with autism have unique abilities and technical skills that can help in a wide variety of technical roles, including cybersecurity professionals that are hard to find.

(Note: If such programs are in the making or are currently active in the public sector, please contact me with the details so I may share this positive development.)

A Personal Example

As the parent of a daughter with high-functioning autism, the evolution of this topic over the past two decades has personal meaning for me.

Our daughter Grace is very smart and so capable in numerous ways, and she is certainly tech-savvy. In fact, her online life has been a huge advantage for her. Technology has given my intelligent daughter a voice, a role in community, and a place of self-expression. Nevertheless, the circumstances are still complex, and there is much room for improvement in our society. Over the next year, Grace will graduate with a bachelor’s degree from a local college, but like many others with ASD, her career prospects beyond school are uncertain.

There are thousands of families all over America that continue to struggle through the reality of a family member with ASD. What is clear is that there are organizations to help. These resources are valuable and must continue to increase. New laws are being passed in many states regarding these new services — seeking to protect and provide a future in our community for these brilliant individuals. (One such example comes from this Michigan website.)

As the private sector continues to step up to make a difference regarding the hiring of people with autism, I believe it is critical that governments take the same action — especially with technology jobs.


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