Neurodiversity in the Intelligence world
Autism and the special spies.
An art teacher once told me that looking at a picture, regardless of its provenance or value, can be quite overwhelming when you see it for the first time. It is ever-changing, so you might see something different each time to visit it - something that can sometimes confuse. His advice was to pick on one square inch that appeals to you and focus just on that aspect of it, what you love about it, what it is that attracts you, and then take it from there before looking at the bigger picture. If you do that, then over time you will see the picture for what it is and will have got there in a more modest but considered fashion - that's the theory at least.
It might also be slightly romanticised and is quite a common art teacher's trick, but in essence it can be applied to many things. When confusion sets in then sit back and focus on the detail. It is not uncommon to use this as a means of solving problems and making informed decisions. For some however, taking comfort in the detail is a 'default setting' and one which in extreme cases can be at the expense of seeing the bigger picture - a 'trade-off'. For others, assimilating large amounts of information, numerical or visual, is instinctive and immediate. In essence, two extremes of a spectrum. The people we are referring to are of course the "neurodiverse" or those on the Autistic Spectrum. Within the 'bell' of such a sample are the majority who are generally highly functional, social and seemingly without personality issues, and integrate without detection. As one moves towards the extreme ends then of course that can change.
Within this spectrum, the two extreme points offer insight into equally fascinating but very different skills. The trade-off we refer to, is an exchange for the benefits of some extraordinary parts of the psyche at the expense of a multitude of other facets, such as social skills, confidence, numeracy, literacy, emotional swings, and very many more.
"...focusing on that square inch can be an important technique - it also can lead to obsession - but it that a bad thing if that obsession is concerned with national security?"
Some will find it debilitating and it will cause them difficulties in life - for the majority of the neurodiverse however, this is managed and manged by way of complex survival strategies developed in early childhood. Those who teeter on the edge on a daily basis, managing a tightrope across the social quagmire?
In a post-enlightenment, post-AI Quantum world where we hope those currently in the antiscience camps concede to logic and scientific questioning, then emotional currency will devalue. In such a word, ironically will the meek - the previous outliers - inherit their place on this earth, and will they be the neurodiverse? We think so, yes.
The next evolution?
Some people say that being on the Autistic Spectrum is a natural 'next step' in the evolutionary development of the human race. A little 'tongue in cheek' maybe, but having the ability, like our predatory ancestors, to strip out emotion in favour of survival, may actually lend some truth to the statement after all.
By throwing the curved ball on AI in the mix, then who knows, perhaps the Neurodiverse will prove to be the link between average humans and the 'thinking AI machines'. Perhaps not such a crazy notion after all. So for now, are those people who previously sat on the fringes of society, destined to be the shapers and conductors of exponential thought?
Pretty bold statements indeed, but for those in the know, is 'learning difficulty' really an appropriate term to describe a large section of the community where learning is far from difficult, but sometimes a little too easy? Where 'special needs' more accurately refers to a need for more information or colour on a canvas in what is an otherwise monochrome landscape?
They might not be able to integrate well in society, but they can, and do, help to protect it. Being on the Autistic Spectrum, highly functional people with Autism, those with Aspergers and the Savant, can and do offer the intelligence services incredible talents.
There is a definition of an entrepreneur that goes "an entrepreneur is a person who is alert to opportunities that other people ignore". On that basis, someone with ASD could be someone who is 'alert to details that other people ignore".
"If I had to go into a real Casino Royale - I would take Rainman before James Bond all the time!
At SIS the challenge for the Recruitment Team will be to find "ordinary people with extraordinary minds and skills". Those with the variety of conditions that are grouped under the banner "Neurodiversity", namely dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, ADHD, Asperger’s and autism, often struggle to land jobs because of negative stereotypes. Full-time employment rates among members of the National Autism Society, for example, stand at only 15 per cent. Yet when it comes to being recruited as spies, those “problems” become pluses.
"GCHQ even has its own Neurodiverse Support Group. Its chairman (who naturally wants to be identified only as “Matt”) explains the thinking: “What people don’t realise is that people with neurodiversity usually have a 'spiky skills’ profile, which means that certain skills areas will be below par and others may well be above.”
GCHQ is not the only employer to spot this opportunity. Three quarters of the workforce of the Danish software company Specialisterne is made up of those on the autism spectrum. It argues that a diagnosis of autism can often point to enhanced perceptual functions and a greater-than-average ability to pay attention to tiny, apparently insignificant details. And that is precisely what is in short supply in the industry.
But does that neat fit between “neurodiversity” and spying stretch much beyond a genius with software, the sort of work that is more Q’s department than 007’s globetrotting high jinks? What about solving mysteries and tracking down criminals? Surely that same attention to detail could pay dividends in a secret agent or high-profile detective."
The many websites aiming to crush the myth that dyslexia is any obstacle at all to being a world-beater are full of the names of those who have thrived with it – inventors (Alexander Graham Bell), entrepreneurs (Richard Branson), virtuoso musicians (Nigel Kennedy), writers (F Scott Fitzgerald) and Renaissance men (Leonardo da Vinci). But I can find none with a special category for spies and detectives (with special thanks to Peter Stanford of The Guardian newspaper).
So, let's assume that in the real world the use of the phrase 'learning difficulty' is probably another one of those terms that will one day take a seat next to the latest politically incorrect phrases to describe a minority. Closely followed by 'special needs' and joining 'police person', a 'person hole' cover or 'non-specific' genders as other reminders of changing societal pressures. In essence, the majority of 'those' people with some exceptional skills at their disposal, have learnt how to deal with such pressures from an early age, and in many cases, developed coping mechanisms to deal with certain uncomfortable situations. Just developing those skills in themselves requires a development and cerebral workout that most simply do not have to endure. Being a highly functional, left handed, seemingly normal, outgoing and emotionally mature member of society is no mean feat and those people armed with the ability to not only survive, but thrive in those circumstances, have an ability that organisations such as GCHQ and SIS can harness. In fact, one could easily say that in order to have created a so-called 'normal' persona and one which has had to sometimes live with the monotony a school curriculum has to offer, and at the same time 'flesh out' what to some would appear a highly popular person, is already well versed in the art of creating a 'legend' and false identity. Survival skills like that, learnt from an early age, can sometimes take many months if not years to teach the 'normal' SIS recruit. A thin line between madness and genius indeed. But, if you place yourself in the shoes of a child who has had some profound differences growing up, and has then managed to sell themselves as being just like everyone else and actually sit comfortably in the upper percentiles, imagine how useful such a chameleon could be to the intelligence services. It is innate, and the complex neural networks were busy finding ways to by-pass various synapses whilst others in the classroom were living a relatively charmed life of normality.
Of course, there has to be a price to pay, and in many circumstances this can be in the form of some quite profound mental health problems for individuals at the less functioning end of the spectrum. That said, as studies of psychology and spectrum disorders such as autism, aspergers ADHD etc continue to develop from what was until very recently nothing at all, the exceptional talents people with these condition have, can be used to add value in most organisations.
As mentioned above, this adoption of the neuro-diverse within GCHQ already attributes value. Of course, the less emotionally developed within the spectrum may find certain tasks restrictive, but then again doesn't everyone? The often repeated mission statement, that the intelligence services are 'made up of diverse individuals to more closely represent the diverse society they protect' can be applied in this case. Indeed, scaling back feelings of empathy, emotion or other external influences out of decision making in favour of logic, proof and testing, is an important contributor for organisations such as GCHQ. Which is why they have been ahead of the curve in recognising this subject and treating it with the respect it deserves.
Article published by GCHQ - 29 Mar 2017
To mark World Autism Awareness Week, we hear from James*, a GCHQ member of staff with Asperger syndrome. I think that it was down to GCHQ that I ever got diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, as my school, university and other jobs had serially failed to spot it for many years. I just got labelled as "doesn’t suffer fools gladly", "can be a little blunt, especially in emails", "isn’t very sociable and rubs folk up the wrong way" and so on.
Interestingly, while people may have in hindsight attributed bad things to Asperger syndrome, it is very rare that anyone seems to make that connection with more positive behaviours.
The positive aspects are often things like:
Very good attention to detail, can spot patterns, anomalies and trends easily.
Very good focus on a task and determination to complete it, perhaps even explore wider context to it and innovate.
Very good, logical, science-based decision making without the often distracting emotional baggage many people have this. So able to make independent, unbiased decisions.
As you can imagine, all these things are crucial to GCHQ's work! This could be one of the reasons why we have always attracted a high number of neurodiverse staff, stretching back to Bletchley Park and beyond.
As our Director Robert Hannigan has said: "To do our job, which is solving some of the hardest technology problems the world faces for security reasons, we need all talents and we need people who dare to think differently and be different."
I was encouraged to seek diagnosis by GCHQ's Neurodiversity Adviser, which turned out to be quite easy and painless. GCHQ has had a specialised neurodiversity support service for 20 years and has training and detailed guidance available for all staff.
One of the things it offers are awareness sessions for managers. Good management makes a big difference to how well you cope.
A good manager will help you to put in place coping mechanisms and make reasonable adjustments while you get these working.
A good manager will recognise what work you will do well and what work would be really challenging.
A good manager will make other workplace adjustments to minimise aspects of work that make an 'Aspie' anxious, such as business travel in my case.
A good manager will recognise that Asperger syndrome isn't curable but that you can employ coping mechanisms and practise the hard things in graded steps.
A bad manager can ruin your confidence, career and make you totally unproductive.
My experience could have been a different story if I hadn't have found myself working for an employer who not only helped me diagnose my syndrome but also saw the positives. I’ve experienced how we are consistently striving to be even better at supporting neurodiverse staff. It is great to see the department leading the way with education and looking for more opportunities to deploy neurodiverse staff in a way that ensures their skills are best employed. GCHQ is a 'Disability Confident' Level 3 employer committed to supporting all our staff with disabilities, including those with neurodiverse conditions. We are actively ensuring our recruitment campaigns are accessible and that there are no barriers to the recruitment and continued professional development of neurodiverse staff.
*Name changed to protect his identity