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Autism, Technology, and Older Adults: Facing an Unexpected Set of Challenges

As an engineer who has been involved with technology his entire life, and an older adult on the autism spectrum, I have always felt that, in my case, there was always a strong connection between the two. Although the notion that autistics are generally inclined towards technology has become a common stereotype (even though such individuals, in reality, constitute a minority of autistics), as a member of that minority I nevertheless have a strong sense that it applies to me, at least in some ways.

Older man having trouble using a smartphone

Older man having trouble using a smartphone

Even at the time of my diagnosis over 20 years ago, just a few years after the initial recognition of Asperger Syndrome and other milder variants of autism, there were already speculations about certain prominent figures in the field of technology who might be on the spectrum. Skeptical though I was about this at first, I read a few biographies of such individuals and, in some cases, found descriptions of some classic (not to mention familiar) autistic traits and behaviors, especially in their childhood. I also noticed, when watching videos of them, typical autistic speech patterns and other mannerisms (which I recognized from peoples’ imitations of me earlier in my life). For years I had hoped that one of them would “come out” and make their diagnosis public, thinking that this would greatly benefit the autism community. Although it never happened, even as the suspicions continued within parts of the autism community, at least the level of public awareness about the autism spectrum increased dramatically during that time, with numerous portrayals of Asperger Syndrome and autism in the popular media. I got an unexpected surprise on the night of May 8, 2021, when Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and founder of Tesla and SpaceX, proclaimed to the world on Saturday Night Live that he had Asperger Syndrome (interestingly, he had never been among my “suspects”). Anticlimactic as this was at such a late date, I was still glad to see it finally happen, at least until I gave further thought to its ramifications.

Myth vs. Reality

Although such individuals may serve as role models and even heroes to some in the autism community, they not only perpetuate the stereotype that autistics are generally inclined towards and even gifted at technology, but also reinforce the notion that autistics who do have such talents are likely to become technology billionaires. Neither of these could be further from the truth. In fact, most technology workers, when lucky enough to even be employed, find themselves in very high-stress situations where they are paid relatively low wages; this is especially true in many IT departments. Those on the autism spectrum encounter the same employment challenges as most other autistics and are challenged by the interpersonal, social, and (especially) political aspects of the modern workplace. Additionally, increasing expectations regarding the ability to multitask, learn new skills and job functions quickly and with little or no preparation, and rapidly adapt to a wide variety of constantly changing circumstances, can present significant if not formidable challenges to autistics who often have substantial executive-functioning deficits. In fact, I have personally known a few autistics with very respectable technical credentials who had difficulty finding work or else found themselves in stressful and demanding jobs having low position, status, and pay.

Personally, I am convinced that this is a recent development. Autistics have always (at least in modern history) been with us, and those with strong technical inclination have held gainful employment and contributed to society in various capacities. Temple Grandin has observed that she encountered many such individuals (usually visual thinkers) in the maintenance departments of meat plants where she worked. Steve Silberman, in his book NeuroTribes, has suggested that the early amateur (“ham”) radio community had many individuals who were probably on the spectrum (I am licensed as KF2BF). As a child who was obsessed with virtually anything mechanical, electrical, or electronic, I can remember the numerous radio/TV/appliance stores and repair shops that existed at the time, as well as the many publications aimed at electronics enthusiasts (which I eagerly devoured). What this implied was that anybody inclined towards these things could make a good living from them. There is no doubt in my mind that many autistics, although never diagnosed as such, who had strong interests in and talent for anything technical likely had plenty of opportunities to be gainfully employed and live independently – things that nowadays elude a high percentage of the autism community.

What This Means for Older Workers

Ironically, it was the development of modern technologies, particularly digital, computer, and communications, that was responsible for eliminating so many jobs in general and disproportionately many of those for which autistics were best suited. The fact that electronic devices and appliances became so inexpensive to produce eliminated most repair and technician jobs (and those which remained became more stressful and less lucrative), and computer software has done the same for occupations such as proofreading, bookkeeping, library, and research, which doubtless provided employment for many autistics in earlier days when such jobs were plentiful. As much as the new technologies may have created some new jobs, these are far fewer in number than the many which were lost, and there is also the question as to how many of the new jobs are suitable for autistics.

The situation is even more dire for older autistics who were eliminated from such jobs and found themselves unemployed. It is difficult for any older person who has been doing a specific type of work for many years to suddenly adapt to a different occupation, even when prospective positions have some semblance to their former jobs. In many cases, however, all available openings are completely unrelated to anything that they were either trained for or had ever done. For autistics, who typically have difficulty adapting to change, this can present formidable if not insurmountable challenges.

A recent trend in the job market is an insistence on the part of employers of hiring only so-called “digital natives”, or individuals who were born after the proliferation of modern computing and communication technologies, who were exposed to such since early infancy, and who have used them their entire lives. This is seen by some as a form of de-facto age discrimination. Obsolescence has been the scourge of engineers and other technical workers since the mid-20th century when the newer technologies of transistors and integrated circuits (microchips) displaced the older vacuum tube-based electronics. Those who were not skilled at or could not adapt to the new technology found themselves unemployed and unemployable. A similar situation now exists for older workers who are not digital natives – this includes older technical professionals like myself (I am considered unusual for my generation because I was first exposed to computers while still in high school – most of my contemporaries were even older when they first used a computer!), as well as nontechnical workers who nevertheless are now required to use these technologies (often extensively) in the course of their work. Once again, older autistics are severely affected by this trend.

I have directly experienced all of this throughout my life and career. Since early childhood, I had a strong affinity for taking things apart and assembling them, and subsequently developed electronics skills such as soldering and using electronic tools and test equipment. Later, as an engineering student, I studied electronic design and subsequently spent a major part of my professional career as a circuit designer. Some years afterward, I studied computer science, which extended my career by more than a decade. As it happens, all the skills that I had acquired over the course of my life, which once made me highly employable, are now all but worthless apart from my retirement hobby of repairing and restoring old equipment – it makes me very grateful that I was even able to retire. Many former colleagues and co-workers avoided obsolescence by pursuing careers in management or consulting, or by moving to a different profession or occupation. After I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, I realized that these options would not have been viable for me, and the results would almost certainly have been disastrous.

Technology and Older Adults

It is widespread conventional wisdom that older adults have far greater difficulty learning to use and adapting to new technologies than do younger individuals. While this may be a generalization, I have found that it is often true and that it was certainly the case for me and for many of my contemporaries (I am a senior citizen). I must emphasize here that I am referring to the day-to-day use of pervasive technologies such as social media and smartphones (for all my technological experience and interest, I still use a basic cellular phone and have no social media presence outside of my direct involvement with the autism community), and not to technical skill or expertise.

For older adults on the spectrum, this can be even more significant. A variety of assistive technologies are used to help children and adults on the autism spectrum in numerous ways, and many autistics have reported that they prefer digital means of communication (email, texting, social media, etc.) to more traditional means, as the former allows them to circumvent their social and nonverbal communications deficits. While these can be helpful, and even a blessing, for many younger autistics, they may offer little benefit for older adults who are unable to adapt to the newer means of interacting. Even when training is made available to them, becoming acclimated to, and incorporating the new technologies into their lives, can be very difficult indeed.

One ubiquitous feature of modern technological life is the frequency at which the means of interacting with and using technology (e.g., user interfaces) are changed, sometimes significantly and often without notice. Although this does not seem to be much of an issue for younger individuals, and perhaps not for many younger autistics (especially those with an interest in technology), it can be a source of immense frustration and even anger for older autistics who always had difficulty adapting to change. Once again, this is entirely an issue of acclimation to the use of technology in daily life, and not of technical ability or knowledge.

Yet again, I have both personally dealt with these issues and encountered other older adults in the autism community who have had similar experiences. Despite the many years I spent both designing digital hardware and writing computer software, not to mention a graduate computer science degree, I am always aggravated whenever I am forced to interact with technology in a new and different manner (especially when it was not that long since I had to learn the current method). I also know at least one person who has worked with computers his entire career and is constantly frustrated by the rapid rate at which user interfaces and application programs are regularly changed.

Despite our long and proud history of involvement with technology, not to mention the benefits that modern technologies have brought about, the modern age has created a variety of new challenges for the autism community, especially for older autistics, and especially in the always-challenging areas of employment and daily living.

Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies for Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at kwittig@earthlink.net.

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