Monday, 1 October 2012
by Susan Wade
Many exceptional, creative minds are currently not being invited into our organisations.
Despite her remarkable visual abilities and innovative approach to the design of livestock handling facilities, Temple Grandin, arguably the most famous living person with autism, talks of having to “get in through the back door” throughout her professional life.
Some highly able and creative individuals on the autism spectrum may have successfully walked through the front door of organisations – indeed there are participants in my PhD research who have. Yet, there are many more on the autism spectrum with high intellectual and creative potential that remain on the wrong side of the professional employment door. This is a significant problem, not just for the individual living below their potential, but also for organisations and ultimately for society which risks missing out on the creative contributions of these ‘different minds’.
The old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ is good advice for organisations in their employment decisions. It seems entirely logical to prefer employees who are socially skilled, politically savvy team players. The interview process in most organisations does an outstanding job at ensuring that people with this skill set are welcomed. Yet, when we start to see a broad range of capacities as ‘basic’, ‘mandatory’ or ‘core’ there is the possibility that a great deal of skill diversity – and potential for innovation – is lost.
The important question to ask here is, ‘who is not coming through the front door of our organisations’?
Past creative breakthroughs have often been the product of individuals who are not natural team players or highly socially skilled. There is a risk of losing the creative contributions of many and constraining the full potential of organisations if we don’t better understand the value and needs of individuals with uneven abilities.
Uneven abilities – or high abilities co-existing with an area of significant weakness – may even be related to creative potential. Creativity researchers have long recognised that those producing creative works have often had an uneven profile of abilities – featuring striking strengths and profound weaknesses.
The cognitive profile of those with Asperger’s syndrome is described by Professor Tony Attwood as being ‘conspicuously uneven’. Professor Baron-Cohen from Cambridge University considers the characteristics of Issac Newton and Albert Einstein, concluding that their social difficulties were consistent with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome – an Autism Spectrum Condition. Research has also documented the traits of autism in profoundly gifted people, including a Field Medal winner (the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics).
Autism includes the whole ‘spectrum’ of abilities and it is certainly not helpful to buy into stereotypes or myths about all people with autism having special talents. That said, Autism Spectrum Conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome are diagnosed in some individuals with very high abilities. Dr. Hans Asperger first noted the creative potential of individuals with Asperger’s syndrome in 1944. He highlighted their potential for success in high positions, describing their ‘autistic intelligence’ as being “akin to the intelligence of true creativity”.
The participants in my PhD study “Abilities, Achievement and the Autism Spectrum” also demonstrate remarkable abilities and high achievement across a wide range of talent domains. Attributes supporting creativity in gifted individuals on the autism spectrum may include the ability to disregard social conventions, intense focus, drive for perfection, divergent thinking and extended time spent alone. A different way of thinking is described beautifully by one highly successful participant working in the finance industry. He proposed that while other people seem to want to “think outside the box”, people with Asperger’s syndrome don’t see a box.
Organisations can develop a more innovative culture by inviting less conventionally employable individuals to find a place within the organisation and then by supporting them appropriately. This will require leaders of the future to be aware of the full range of human capacities and find creative ways for people to contribute their unique strengths. Future leaders will need to use their intellect alongside their empathy, flexibility and vision in order to facilitate this. Strong leadership will be required to ensure that employees with a ‘difference’ are valued and respected within the organisational culture.
The complex nature of community and global challenges we face must be met by empowering individuals to make their unique contribution rather than encouraging ‘generic’ skills and competencies. How many highly gifted, innovative, divergent thinkers – including those on the autism spectrum – are not given the opportunity to bring their intellect and creativity to the challenges we face at a range of levels?
Opening the door to potential innovators can happen if organisations fully appreciate the value of drawing on a diversity of talented minds.
Susan Wade is a Ci2012 Innovation Leader Scholarship winner and PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. Her research focuses on talent development in highly able individuals on the autism spectrum.
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