Neurodiversity in the Intelligence world
Autism and the special spies.
Autism and Neurodiversity in MI6
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.
Emotional intelligence in Secret Intelligence.
When one hears the phrase "emotional intelligence" one does not immediately think of someone on the Autistic Spectrum, and most probably not people with Asperger’s Syndrome. The word "emotion" is to blame.
When applying for a position within many Intelligence organisations you will often come across this phrase being used to describe an important trait sought in any potential recruit. For this writer, initial impressions seem to suggest a contradiction. How can Intelligence services, on the one hand want someone who is able to handle their emotions well and read them in others well too, and at the same time recruit people in roles and with conditions that seem to attract precisely the opposite?
It seems to come down to definition, as most things do. One has to be wary of falling into a 'short termist' myopic trap of unquestioning acceptance that these terms are somehow set in stone and, correct. Many can be fleeting and susceptible to what is perceived as socially acceptable at any given time. The oft used reference to primitive times when "they didn't have a spectrum in those days but we (humans) managed ok" seems to spring to mind here. It is of course true, although if appropriate medication and support had been provided all those millennia ago, what would the species be like now? One can only imagine. It could easily be argued that as less emotional but 'perceptive in other ways' humans, a more than vital survivors’ attention to detail was a good thing... regardless of what it was called. In fact, in times of crisis now where immediate, swift action and decision making is involved when faced with a threat, is emotion of any use at all? No. But then that is not the point is it. The point is, we, society, humans, need diversity in most areas of life and those suited to one task and in possession of exceptional skills, may not be suited to others.
The more one reads about emotional intelligence or emotional maturity, the more confusing it appears to be. The two terms are sometime defined differently and sometimes they are one of the same. To the uneducated in these matters, myself included, it appears one has a more credible scientific research-based definition, and the other is more commonly referred to in various self-help magazines or episodes of "Good Morning Britain".
One might safely speculate that it is the former i.e. emotional intelligence which organisations such as SIS are referring to. In that case, it is clear. We are referencing an analytical skill in the same way as we do any other. It is the ability to self-assess one’s emotional state, make judgments about that state and be equally adept at making the same observations about someone else's. We like to use our own acronym in these and other situations, A.P.E (or APE Intelligence), which stands for Assess, Plan, Execute. We are hardly reinventing the wheel, however for those of you who possess that mindset, it is a useful pillar or foundation to have supporting your every move in apparently "tricky" situations. Tricky can mean many different things. Although it sounds like an aggressive, possibly combative acronym, it can be exactly the opposite. It is never a bad time to assess you or your environment and more importantly take your time in doing so. If you can slow someone else's pace down or slow time to suit your pace, then why not. That in turn creates time to plan a response, whether verbal or physical, and that in turn leads to a speedier execution. That is the theory anyway. In actual fact, it is more than theory, it often works. However, it takes practice and that invariably means, experience, which in turn means learning from mistakes. So how does it relate to emotional intelligence and the neurodiverse? Well it might not be as simple as binary (or as ternary) as the A.P.E method implies it could be. Having emotional intelligence also implies having empathy. There is a big difference between reading or analysing the fact that someone is sad and therefore making the appropriate gestures to appear empathetic, and actually being empathetic and feeling sad for them. Although even that is not always entirely the case. This is one aspect of the AI discussion that is so fascinating and one that highlights the importance of ensuring there is a multidisciplinary approach to the future analysis of quantum AI. It asks questions that maths and science alone cannot answer alone and is a discussion for another time perhaps.
It would seem alien (no pun intended) to walk into GCHQ and ask everyone to take an “emotional intelligence “test. This underlines earlier points that, although the Intelligence Service’s do not and should not accurately represent the diverse society they protect, the job itself does require diversity. It is also highly complex and not all the jobs can accommodate such rigid definitions. So, what we are saying is, yes emotional intelligence is important but ironically it is the ability to recognise where and when emotion has its place, that is probably more relevant. It really does take all sorts.
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
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.