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NORMAL — Everyone knows the “stereotypical IT guy,” says Ronnie Jia, associate professor of information technology at Illinois State University: socially awkward, maybe even seen as aloof or arrogant, but extremely knowledgeable about his field.

Not all “computer nerds” fit that stereotype, but many do and some of those same traits are found in people on the autism spectrum, he said.

“Some would say autism is IT's open secret,” said Jia. “I look around my classes and maybe one-third (of students) exhibit autism traits.”

He hadn't thought much about it until his own daughter, Liz, was diagnosed with autism at age 3.

“After that,” Jia said, “it was all hands on deck,” as he and his wife, Heather, dove into learning more about the autism spectrum.

Their research has shown that the so-called STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — can be excellent careers for many on the autism spectrum, but employers need to adapt their hiring practices so they don't overlook potentially valuable employees.

The formal diagnosis criteria include two components: pervasive difficulty in social communication and social interaction, such as avoiding eye contact and not responding to questions; and intense pre-occupation with certain subject areas with a desire for set routines, explained Jia.

It is referred to as a “spectrum” because of the wide variation in where people fall on the scale — from those who may be non-verbal and have difficulty caring for themselves to those who are high functioning.

“If you've met one person who has autism, you've met one person with autism. There's a big range,” said Kari Sandhaas, vice president of adult services for Autism McLean and chair of the Autism Friendly Community campaign.

“If we mention the big label, that might scare someone. But we all have met such people,” said Jia.

Because STEM fields are very predictable, systematic, detail-oriented and rule-based, they often are a good fit for people on the autism spectrum, according to Jia.

If children aren't already gravitating toward such careers, parents or guidance counselors can “direct the kids to consider these fields,” he said.

But landing a job can be the next obstacle. That's where research by Jia's wife comes in.

Heather Jia is an associate professor of business management and quantitative methods at ISU.

“I look at how it affects businesses,” she said. “There are a lot of inherent benefits to having an autistic person as an employee.”

For example, she said, “Autistic people see things others people would miss” or would more easily dismiss because they want to fit in with what the group thinks.

“My daughter teaches me things all the time. She shows me different ways to do things,” she said.

However, “a significant hurdle for them to get the jobs is the traditional interview process,” she said. With its emphasis on social aspects such as having a strong handshake, making eye contact and engaging in small talk, Heather Jia said, “the traditional process is almost set up for them to fail.”

Alternative methods include having potential employees demonstrate their capabilities by giving them a task to do and/or having them submit work samples. Internships are another way to identify potential employees by giving them an opportunity to show what they can do, she said.

Some people on the autism spectrum have sensory difficulties that need accommodations, Sandhaas said, but these often are something as simple as providing headphones to cover distracting sounds or changing fluorescent lighting that has pulsing vibrations that can be disturbing.

Autism has only been a formally recognized diagnosis since 1980 and as criteria have broadened and screening has improved, the number of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders has increased.

One in 68 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

National and community-based organizations, such as Autism McLean, are helping to raise awareness about autism. Movies and television programs also play a role in raising awareness, both Jias agreed.

People can relate to what they've seen, such as the character of Sheldon Cooper on popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” said Heather Jia.

Although autism isn't mentioned, Sheldon's autistic tendencies are obvious, yet he is successful, with a good job and a Ph.D., she notes.

“People are seeing them (others with autism) as, 'Oh, that's a Sheldon,' and not something that should be hidden away,” she said.

A TV series that premiered this season on ABC, “The Good Doctor,” also features a lead character who is a surgeon and autistic.

Heather Jia said Max, a character with autism on the NBC program “Parenthood,” which ran from 2010 to 2015, provided a good example of how autism impacts families.

Society is tolerant of people who are technologically weak but "socially warm and fuzzy," said Ronnie Jia. "But the reverse is unfortunately not true. There's still a stigma in many people's minds" toward those who are technologically sharp but socially inept.

He said society needs to "see the value these people bring to the table."

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota



Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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