ISU Research Explores Connection Between Autism, IT Careers

Oct 12, 2017
Originally published on October 12, 2017 9:03 am

It’s no secret that more and more children are being diagnosed with autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about 1 in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder. That jumps to 1 in 42 for boys—almost five times more common than in girls.

What happens when all those kids grow up, go to college, and try to start their careers? That question is at the core of research being done by Ronnie and Heather Jia, two Illinois State University professors with their own special connection to autism.

Ronnie Jia’s research explores the potential connection between autism and the IT field. Jia, an associate professor in ISU’s School of Information Technology, has always been interested in why someone chooses an IT career versus something in the humanities or social sciences.

One reason, Jia suspects, may be a person’s autistic tendencies. Past research has established autistic traits are directly associated with overengagement with objects and orderly systems, combined with a lack of interest in other people and social interactions. For an autistic person, that would make IT a logical career choice, filed with rule-based code and computers, and lots of solitary work.

“The linkage between IT and autism has long been called an open secret in the IT industry,” said Jia, whose research was featured in the September issue of ISU’s research magazine Redbird Scholar.

Jia said initial results from a survey of over 200 students have shown strong support for his hypotheses. He’s preparing a manuscript and expects to submit it for peer review this fall.

The goal, Jia said, is to stimulate interest and discussion in the subject among students, IT professionals, and even those who rely on IT professionals.

“These geek tendencies, this stereotypical ‘IT guy’ image, are really autism-related personality traits that some IT workers exhibit,” Jia said. “The difference is just the degree of severity.”

Autism In The Family

Ronnie and Heather Jia’s interest in the disorder was sparked by their own young daughter’s autism diagnosis. They want to identify autistic people’s unique strengths and how they can better fit into careers.

“We have devoted much of our time to understanding and researching the condition,” Ronnie Jia said.

The first wave of children with this autism diagnosis are right around college age and are entering the workforce now, said Heather Jia, associate professor in ISU’s Department of Management and Quantitative Methods. Ninety percent of autistic workers are underemployed or unemployed, she said.

TV shows and movies like “The Big Bang Theory” and “The Accountant” have prominently featured autistic main characters, leading to an evolution in social norms within organizations, Jia said.

“The impetus for organizations to embrace inclusion and diversity has never been higher,” she said.

Now is the time, she said, for employers to apply these new understandings to the workforce. If you’re hiring for a position that may draw autistic applicants, a job interview based more on work samples or trial runs may be more revealing that a traditional interview based on social cues, she said. College career centers can also take a more active role in identifying opportunities for autistic workers, she added.

“It’s important to recognize that this is not a charity,” Heather Jia said. “Autistic individuals outperform non-autistic individuals in many of these types of jobs. We as a society just need to take the challenge to help and guide these folks to find the best fit for them.”

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