Neurodiversity in the Intelligence world
Autistic Frauds, Agents, or Both?
SISS • 05 April 2020
First off…forgive the ‘click bait’ title. It should trigger immediate thoughts of surprise, a degree of irritation (if you are in the ASD camp), a bit of confusion, and for the more perceptive of you, an immediate understanding. Feelings not uncommon for persons on various scales of the autistic spectrum.
It has been said that many aspects of life and its success depend on balance. No more so than when one is looking at Neurodiversity, in our opinion. The ‘spectrum’ is by definition a scale. Within it however there are numerous further dissections, depending on which ‘condition’ the person has been labeled with. Labelling is often used in a disparaging context and we are guilty as charged too. However, like it or not, it at least defines something. A something which did not have a definition until relatively recently. Certainly not in post-war Britain, even up to the Thatcher storm-trooper era. So, labelling has as important place as a base, or a starting point if you will. No doubt as time develops, and acceptance and more crucially understanding takes place, then we will see more precise categories and eventually, we suspect, a complete reversal. These distinctions, levels, categories, sub-categories, and a preponderance to sometimes justify academic research grants over the bigger picture will in our view…. cease. At the bare minimum.... less sub-categories please. There comes a point where one has to look at the benefits to holders of those conditions and whether the ASD Machine is caught up in an endless cycle which, at the risk of critcism, is enough already....we get it. How many years did we (society) spend trying to tell people that women were from Venus and men were from Mars...Or was it the other way around? Endless discussions, research across all disciplines, on the differences between the sexes. Much of course factual and essential of course. We are different. That is fact.
"Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars"
However, where are we now? A world constantly striving toward homogeneity and sameness. Not just in this area, but across many, for example the internet, communications in general, cultural levelling and dilution, removal of borders (metaphorically). Clearly the fight for equality has been raging for much longer than the battle to accept and understand the Neurodiverse amongst us. The most obvious difference between the two camps is that one is still 100% soundly based on biological, genetic differences and would not be questioned by any mainstreamers. For those diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome or profound Autism, there is still debate about the causes and the determinants of those conditions, such as when they occur and why. It does not seem to be as simple as suggesting genetic differences alone, although there are proven hereditary influences impacting the likelihood of developing those conditions. So, these two camps do have obvious differences, however it is no huge speculative punt that we are likely to see things move in the same direction. In the end, we may well be able to view a person with autism as an equal, in many environments, just as in the West we have with men and women. As with both, perhaps then there is a better chance of truly harnessing the skills that may be inherently different but considered on merit not stigma. This may well sound like a bit of drum beating which might give rise to street march and placards, but it is unlikely. This has to be viewed logically and without prejudice and in a way so many organisations, such as GCHQ and other departments have picked up and carried the baton so far. For those at the highly functional end of the spectrum, up to and including the savant for example (see also “NDE’s and Neural trauma” on the extreme - externally driven changes in ability), the ‘cream’ if you will – they will have been snapped up, studied and many fully employed without hesitation. What of the tier two brigade who are representative of the bulk of the Neurodiverse? These are the groups that should benefit and should be really nurtured and understood. To play devil’s advocate for a moment, it might be harsh, but some will favour cherry-picking as some will not be considered fit enough to use. It might be harsh, but the sentiment may well have some foundation, as there are simply so many people with such a severe condition there is no chance whatsoever of ever gaining meaningful employment. So, we should make it abundantly clear that these are not the groups we are referring to. Many have profound learning difficulties and it would be extremely unhelpful and counterproductive to suggest otherwise. Equally, we are not suggesting the someone having Asperger Syndrome is automatically going to get a job at GCHQ. As with all people, some are more gifted than others. If it was that simple, GCHQ would not have a HR Department at all...they would simply visit a local SENCO at any College."
For the highly functional, is there any difference?
So, in the words of “Red; "...if you've come this far, maybe you're willing to come a little further". Referring to the “click bait” comment about the Neurodiverse being fraudsters. As a pre-cursor it might be worthwhile reading the section below on early skills of those children on the spectrum. The key part to that as far as this section is concerned, focuses on the aim to ‘fit in’ as much as possible and find coping methods early on and then throughout life to often work at ridiculous speeds to compartmentalize, assess and adapt, prompted by a desire to remain anonymous and part of the crowd. This is crucial, especially when viewed in the context of Intelligence, but also in many other areas, including crime.
Some might gasp at the very notion that an intelligence operative might have the same skills as a successful criminal, or more pertinently a con-man and fraudster, but they do. Honesty and integrity aside for one second. As we mentioned above, a great deal is dependent on balance and degrees. We may well explore the two in another article shortly. This is because “balance” has two connotations and applications in this context. A well-functioning person with various autistic traits or learning difficulties will often spend a huge part of their life conducting a mental balancing act. For example they may well ask question such as “he said that..so what should I say in response? What is socially acceptable? How do I make a joke? Is it appropriate? How can I manipulate the situation to get from A to B? … A crowded room. Gulp…social setting. Multiple personalities = multiple data sets = harder work (computational power required) = need better power supply (i.e. back-up, food, drink, friends, assets of any description to give an edge) …all sort of processes. In essence, a constant risk analysis and almost never-ending. Call it a “Probability Personality” …if that phrase doesn’t already exist, then feel free to steal it. Visual cues, numerical cues, shapes, sounds, concepts, philosophical conundrums…. weighing up the odds. The smart folk will probably say that is simply called “thinking”, so what is the big deal? We hear them ask. At the risk of repetition, it is degrees and scales. Some ‘normal’ people will enjoy reading a book, learning, relaxing, working and thinking in depth about complex issues. These same people will generally switch off at some point and will not then take the next somewhat obsessive leap to do the same at home. Some of those on the spectrum at the more functional range will. However, they will also relax and enjoy life’s pleasures but in a different way and crucially, will take comfort and security in probability and risk. Slightly perverse maybe, but true. Essentially, order. A fairly commonly perceived trait among those within the Neurodiversity village. Point being…is that a bad thing? Does that difference render them worse, the same or better than anyone else? For us, arguably it probably makes them better for certain jobs…just as anyone else. Which is why the possibility of levelling the playing field to some extent is likely to happen in terms of employment in general.
Attention Deficit or Attention to Detail?
We would agree with the light-hearted comment made on this site previously that “if I was to go into a real Casino Royale, I would choose Raiman over James Bond every time”. OK, they might not be as debonair when entering a bar to serenade a femme fatale, but they will probably have already determined within moments of walking into the bar, what material the surfaces are made from, likely manufacturers, number of people in the room with hair tucked behind the left ear, what version of Windows the PC with the POS software is using and how quickly can they get out to get back to their PC and do some work. That said, they might spend time chatting up the aforementioned lady. After all it is good practice at social skill development and add more data to their ‘cloud’ in an almost 'Neo' fashion. For some this might simply sound utterly exhausting for the person concerned. That is unless they have adapted and learnt from an early age to develop the same skills a fraudster or con man would use too…the route they might have chosen to go down is certainly more nurture than nature in that case. Have you ever noticed how many conmen or fraudsters pretend to be secret agents in order to gain something from the unsuspecting...usually money or kudos? Perhaps the route they chose to go down is more likely an issue of nurture over nature in that case.
Certainly on the face of it, Intelligence organisation’s around the world have recognised the benefits for some time in nurturing talent amonst the neurodiverse. MI6, MI5, GCHQ and the CIA have been relatively vocal recently in their support for diversiry of all kinds. AS far as concerns over social skills, lack of empathy or obsessive behaviour is concerned, if you were to ask the person on the street about people who can have those traits protecting them, their nation, and its security, what would they say? We submit, they are likely to say something like “more obsessed the better mate…as long as they are obsessive about keeping me safe, what’s the problem?”. To conclude therefore, as the risks inherent within Intelligence and Security generally preclude anything other than a binary result, i.e. success or failure, then it is not even about simply being the best as that implies a scale of success which is a luxury many can ill afford. Regardless of differences of any kind, and putting aside any pre-judged notions of what sort of person is more suited, it really only comes down to a win or loss. Now, that’s not rocket science is it?
Autism and the Special Spies
Secret Intelligence - Autism
SISS • August 2018
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".
"Daring to think differently and be different" 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
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.
It is estimated that over 30%, and indeed maybe even as high as 53% of individuals working at GCHQ could legitimately have a place on the Autistic Spectrum (ASD).
Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament Diversity and Inclusion in the UK Intelligence Community
Paper published 18 July 2018 and presented to Parliament pursuant to section 3 of the Justice and Security Act 2013
Access to the full document can be found by clicking on the link below which will take you to the Governments Assets Publishing Department.
The report published last year follows on from various initiatives between the Government and the Intelligence Community to purse a policy of increasing diversity and awareness across a broad range of departments to, in some way, represent the society the services aims to protect.