Autism as Advantage: The Case for Neurodiversity in Design

Hornall Anderson
Oct 23, 2018 · 6 min read

by Amber H. Johnson

Illustration by Madison Schneider

My daughter Stella is 10, an aspiring punk rocker, lover of animals and YouTube videos of animals, eager student of the world’s cultures, born climber, devourer of comic novels, imaginative storyteller, part mermaid, and autistic.

A keen observer who makes profound connections as a matter of course, Stella distills big concepts and emotions into potent, singular expressions. Her stories can also meander in the most wonderful of ways, taking detours that add unexpected richness and end up tying neatly into the greater narrative. The way my daughter’s brain works is a gift. Her unique and clear point of view is invaluable.

Stella’s creativity is often expressed through music, art, and words spoken and written. Above is her first-grade self-portrait. In last year’s talent show, she drew a portrait of her music teacher as the school watched, capturing him simply but expressively in a couple of minutes. She even inspired other students to try their hand at portraits.

In the business of design, we have a strong sense of what creativity thrives on — trusting ourselves and our teams to find freedom within constraints. We have seen time and again how breakthroughs happen — thinking differently, making connections, pushing beyond what can be seen, breaking down silos and stigmas, and shifting perception to parcel meaning.

Yet the design community and all industries that depend on creativity overlook an abundant source of it: autistic and other neurodivergent minds.

“Bus or Cycle” by Kevin Hosseini. Introduced to art through an autism behaviorist who had a degree in art, Hosseini began his successful fine art career as a teen. Since then, his vibrant paintings have been showcased in galleries and museums across the country and globe. Image credit: Kevin Hosseini.

Brands are perceptions. At Hornall Anderson, they are perceptions rooted in truth, aimed at honest differentiation. Done well, they are where human experience and brand story connect. So often, autistic minds are truth seekers, looking past the surface to what really matters. In the creative process, I see plenty of room to elevate our work with the talents and perspectives of those who, like Stella, see and connect to the world from different angles.

I can not speak for Stella or any autistic people, who face an array of deeply painful challenges every day due in part to how society views autism. What I can do is use my personal and work experience as a lens, showing one example of how the world is made richer when we open up our view beyond a narrow focus on deficits to embrace the strengths that often come along with them.

What if we tapped minds that detect patterns and changes before anyone else?

Laura James is a UK journalist, communications agency owner, mother, and author of Odd Girl Out: My Extraordinary Autistic Life. She explained, “I realised when I was quite young that my brain works differently. I spot patterns in things, so can often see which way a situation will go. I’m also great at sifting through information to find the salient points.” Image credit: Pan McMillan.

Research has found that some autistic people excel at perception and detection of complex patterns. Further, a study out of the University of Cambridge suggests that autistic people are less affected by cognitive biases than their neurotypical counterparts.

Able to disregard how information is presented or regarded and weigh the factual merits, some autistic people show innate talent in cutting through the noise and honing in on the truth. It’s an ability that seems more relevant and needed than ever, as people struggle with information overload.

This keenness and depth of synthesis by autistic people seems ideally suited for the task of building strategy, as the underpinning of brands and design must be rooted and trustworthy.

What if we embraced the wonder and specificity of topics to get inspiration and specialized expertise?

Dan Akroyd, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in adulthood, says his “obsession with ghosts and law enforcement” served as the impetus for the movie “Ghostbusters.” Image credit: Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

Immersion in areas of interest is something many autistic people naturally engage in. As Barry M. Prizant explains in Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism, for neurotypical and autistic people alike, a strong interest “feeds a basic neurological need to be engaged, to appreciate beauty, and to experience positive emotion.”

The particularly deep interests that frequently accompany autism — labeled “fixations” or “obsessions” through the lens of disorder rather than difference — are actually wells of passion and knowledge on specific topics and activities, and often become the root of unparalleled skills and creative inspiration.

What if we could arrive more quickly at ideas that defy expectation and push limits?

Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon, is autistic and says his childhood passion for insect collecting helped inspire the anime game, now a multi-billion dollar brand. This tweet by a Pokémon designer provides a glimpse of Tajiri’s early ideation. Image credit: James Turner.

When it comes to generating new ideas, some autistic people have an edge. In a 2015 study showing an association between autism and creativity, researchers presented a challenge to effectively brainstorm uses of specific objects. Autistic people came up with fewer ideas than neurotypical participants, but as one of the researchers, Catherine Best, explained to me, “the participants with autism were more likely to come up with truly novel responses.”

In other words, autistic people skipped some of the more obvious scenarios and went straight to blue sky thinking. It’s hard to overstate the value of this type and speed of innovative thinking in the context of the brand design process.

What if we could better ensure innovative creative expression, in any form?

Artist Sonia Boue is creator of the BBC Radio 4 program, “The Art of Now: Return to Catalonia,” and films for Tate Britain and Bodleian Library, Oxford. “Being autistic is an advantage because in an arts context it’s more than OK to be a bit unconventional, indeed it helps.” Boue’s blog explores the intersection of art and autism. Image credit: Sonia Boue.

Despite the stereotypes and unfair assumptions that abound, many autistic people are flourishing in creative fields from poetry to illustration to film thanks to their adeptness at turning concepts and interests into truly unique expression.

As a writer, and mother of an autistic child, I connected with this intriguing study and delighted in its uncovering of unique verbal creativity associated with autism—an affirmation of what I see every day with Stella. While conventional metaphors were harder for autistic children to grasp, they excelled in “the comprehension and generation of novel metaphors,” a higher level of expression.

In the conceptual work of design, making such unexpected connections is gold, opening new lines of sight, for new ways forward.

What if we turned to highly visual thinkers to execute with amplified reliability and precision?

This blueprint of a livestock handling facility was “done by hand with a pencil, ruler, straight edge, and a compass” by Temple Grandin. She explains in Calling All Minds, “As I got older, I could picture how things worked in vivid visual detail and in three dimensions. It was like running a film in my head. Eventually, I could actually test run equipment in my imagination.” Image credit: Temple Grandin.

A digital production artist recently told me about a project that required 25 colors but was being carried out by a vendor with only seven inks. An autistic mind could be a powerful driver of such solutions. While by no means universal, visual thinking is a common feature of autism that has been shown to speed problem-solving by up to 40%.

In the study by the University of Montreal and Harvard University, autistic and neurotypical individuals were asked to complete patterns in the Raven’s Standard Progressive Matrices (RSPM), to measure “hypothesis-testing, problem-solving and learning skills.”

Per the study’s lead author, “Some critics argued that autistics would be unable to complete the RSPM because of its complexity, yet our study shows autistics complete it as efficiently and have a more highly developed perception than non-autistics.”

We could tap autistic people’s perceptual upper hand to help ensure airtight execution as design takes form.

What if we linked neurodiversity and creativity?

Microsoft explains why their Autism Hiring Program exists: “We believe there is a lot of untapped potential in the marketplace and potential roles that would set future employees up for success.”

More and more hiring programs are harnessing the “autistic advantage,” like Vanderbilt’s Initiative for Autism Innovation and the Workforce, SAP’s Autism at Work program, and Microsoft’s in-depth Inclusive Hiring efforts, which includes their Autism Hiring Program. These are not forms of charitable outreach, but catalysts for innovation.

My concern is that most of this outreach leans on a relatively narrow view of autism — after all, we’re just beginning to understand the differences in how autism manifests in girls and women. Employers are unknowingly ignoring a wide swath of abilities beyond analytics, math and coding. This is increasingly evident as more and more autistic adults speak out, so let’s listen to them. We have much to learn.

There are countless vivid visual thinkers, wielders of words and connections, big idea generators, and self-driven specialists and experts that if welcomed into the design community could reveal new avenues to understanding virtually any topic or problem under the sun, uncover and express solutions, help brands stand out in crowded markets, and connect more meaningfully to a wider range of people.

Could brand design become more inclusive, insightful and revelatory with neurodivergent minds incorporated into the work and process? Could brand design be a gateway for reframing autism under the umbrella of neurodiversity, celebrating rather than fearing differences, providing support for areas of difficulty, and seeing in new ways?

I believe the answer to all of it — and everyone — is yes.

Update: We’ve moved our blog from Medium to the Hornall Anderson website. Click here to see our latest perspectives.

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