Written by Christos Karakanna | UK
on February 22, 2023

As part of our Fuse programme, UP THERE, EVERYWHERE brings you the first of a series of blog’s focussed on bringing true equality to young people who may not have the option for the traditional route to a career.

We know that the earth is round. Everything that we understand about the planet is grounded in the assumption that the earth is indeed round. Well most of us!

But there was a time, not too long ago that we believed that the earth was flat. The shift in our fundamental beliefs is called a paradigm shift. Just like the earth, there are assumptions about the autistic community too. Most people will understand autism through medical prognosis. Of it being a ‘disorder.’ A mental disability and to some they will see autism as even a tragedy. 

As parents of two autistic children, we have had enough side eyes and sympathy stares to begin our own Hallmark card collection. Through this medical prognosis, however, we are conditioned to believe there is a right way for our brains to develop, and a wrong way.  When we found out our children were autistic, we noticed all the strengths in our children's behaviours. The strength in Milo’s ability to digest every fact and figure and regurgitate it just at a pinnacle point in a game of Trivial Pursuit for example. Theo has a photographic memory, which has lent him many a good service during exam season. Theo can tell if a person is feeling blue, just by standing in the same room as them. Dispelling all the rumours that autistic people are unempathetic.

So, if we have all these wonderful traits in our children, how can living on the spectrum be anything but a good thing?  I began to ask myself this question over and over when working with autistic students daily. I would see the individual talents of each child begin to shine more brightly when they were nurtured.  ‘How can something so positive for these children be seen as anything but good?’ This is when I discovered the neurodiversity paradigm. The neurodiversity paradigm is an alternative way of looking at autism. It describes autism as a part of a range of natural variations in human neurological development. Autism is simply a different way of thinking. 

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Recently, the growth of autism understanding and acceptance, has led to a rise in diagnosis rates. In the UK autism is the fastest growing developmental disability being currently diagnosed. Currently it stands at 1 in 67. It is true that the reported rate will never be truly known as many people go through their lives being completely unaware of their condition. Especially in the female community who have become masters of disguise, learning to fit in with their neurotypical counterparts. So, what does this mean for businesses? The one thing we can be sure of is that we will be working alongside autistic people, and they will see the world from a different viewpoint. 

In a paper from 2001, researchers Laurent Mottron and Jacob Burack proposed the enhanced perceptual functioning model which outlines eight principles of sensory perception in autism. The following principles could be pioneering in creative jobs.[1] 

Visual hypersensitivity

Autistic people can have extraordinary vision; on average they can see from 6 m / 20 ft what a non-autistic can see at 2 m / 7 ft. They are also better at pattern recognition, and see visual details that non-autistics don’t tend to register. 

Tunnel vision

The focus of attention in autistics was found to be sharper than in matched controls, and a sharper spatial gradient of attention was observed. Essentially, they experience tunnel vision, with great clarity of detail at the end of the tunnel. 

Greater intensity of colours

Researchers have found changes in the rods and cones in autistic children’s eyes; 85% saw colours with greater intensity than neurotypical children. For these children, red appears nearly fluorescent—vibrating with intensity. 

High prevalence of synesthesia

Synesthesia is a condition in which multiple senses are perceived simultaneously. A study from 2013 indicated that synesthesia occurs in 18.9% of autistic people, compared to 7.22% in the control group. 

Acute hearing 

Autistic people were found to have an increased auditory perceptual capacity relative to non-autistic people. This increased capacity may offer an explanation for the auditory superiorities seen in autism, such as heightened pitch detection.

Superior auditory discrimination

Autistic people tend to be better at detecting a target sound within a group of sounds, and notice (irrelevant) background information more readily. About 1 in 5 autistic individuals show ‘exceptional’ frequency discrimination skills.

Heightened pitch detection

Some autistic people show superiority in memorising picture – pitch associations and in detecting pitch changes in melodies. A subset of autistic individuals — known as “musical savants” — is also known to possess absolute pitch.

Enhanced olfactory detection

Autistic people show enhanced connectivity between the thalamus (a brain area responsible for relaying sensory information) and insula, which is thought to be the cause of heightened sensitivity to smell, sound, and taste. 

So how do we accommodate our autistic colleagues and make them feel valued at work? See our next upcoming Fuse blog! In the meantime see how Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Programme is already doing this.

About the authors

Christos is our Client Managing Parter in the UK as well as the Head of Client Service globally. Leahanna Tarry is his partner who is an Assistant Head Teacher specialising in supporting neurodivergent children. She launches and manages SRBs (Specialist Resource Bases) within high schools, and was recently recognised with a Teacher of the Year award and is the founder and CEO of Neurodiversity classroom. Between them they have two autistic children, Milo, 9 and Theo, 17.

[1] Enhanced Perceptual Functioning (Mukerji, Mottron, & McPartland) 

Other great reading: Inside Our Autistic Minds: Chris Packham’s new documentary is powerful and moving

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