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How to nurture the creative minds of adults on the autism spectrum

We need to look beyond the idea of simply finding jobs for adults on the autism spectrum, in particular those who are high-functioning, and help those with creative talents find a means to produce an income from those talents.

The right job can be a matter of life and death for some people on the spectrum who have or would be diagnosed as having Asperger’s Syndrome (a term still used by many), since they are at a higher risk for suicide and can be plagued by suicidal thoughts.

A 2014 study headed by the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, which was the largest of its kind to date and also included subjects identified with Asperger’s traits, found two-thirds (66 percent) of adults with Asperger Syndrome had contemplated suicide and a third (35 percent) had made plans or attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

Co-lead researcher Professor Simon Baron-Cohen said the study “should be a wake-up call for the urgent need for high quality services, to prevent the tragic waste of even a single life.”

A dozen years earlier, psychologist Tony Attwood noted in his book, “The Complete Guide To Asperger’s Syndrome,” that depression can follow under-employment, such as when someone with Asperger’s has a graduate degree but is trapped in a low-skill job.

“Unemployment [and low-paying under-employment] not only means no [low] income, it also means there is a lack of purpose and structure to the day,” he wrote, “a lack of self-worth and especially for people with AS, a lack of self-identity.”

An option to raise awareness and garner support for those on the autism spectrum might include hosting public events and finding ways for those with a creative streak to generate income from those talents.

One model for such an event was held earlier this year in San Francisco, “Autism and the Creative Economy,” led by Donald Cohen who is presently conducting research on a program for possible career paths for “creatives” by tapping the unique talents of creative autistic adults in an effort to match them with potential employment opportunities.

Another event, “Autism at Work: Releasing Talent and Harnessing Creativity,” took place in London in 2014. That event explored ways in which workplaces can “adapt so as to offer greater opportunities to those with autism, and benefit themselves as a result.”

An ideal way to help creative people on the spectrum would be to create a service based on one in the U.K., Creative Future, which provides marginalized members of society possessing creative talents with training and mentoring so they have an opportunity to publish or exhibit their work.

These creative people often also need someone who can serve as an agent or advisor to help manage and direct exceptional ideas. I have seen a number of comments from those on the autism spectrum who say they need is someone to represent them.

Don’t discount those without degrees

Paul Romer, a Stanford University economist, once said, “We need to judge people by the content and potential of their creativity, and not by whether they have a degree or established reputation."

That is often the case with people on the spectrum, who may have brilliant minds yet lack a college degree. Many become experts on subjects from being self-taught and reading everything they can find of interest to them. They have minds that breed innovation, with the gifts of vision and conceptual intelligence. These are people who think deeply about the nature of things, making connections that are otherwise overlooked, and can sometimes be labeled as social entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly, there are noted philosophers who are speculated to have had Asperger’s.

One such visionary from the last century who is speculated to have been on the spectrum was Buckminster Fuller, who developed the geodesic dome.

At the age of 32, he contemplated suicide, but decided to dedicate himself to improving humanity. He was a renowned inventor, profound thinker and prolific writer who gave lengthy lectures and compiled a vast amount of information he found interesting. He preferred to be addressed as Bucky, and was twice expelled from Harvard, yet received 47 honorary doctorate degrees, held 28 patents, and authored 28 books.

“In our immediate need to discover more about ourselves we also note that what is common to all human beings in all history is their ceaseless confrontation by problems, problems, problems,” Fuller once said. “We humans are manifestly here for problem-solving and, if we are any good at problem-solving, we don’t come to utopia, we come to more difficult problems to solve.”

With Detroit being viewed a laboratory for trying new things, we should be embracing and nurturing persons who, like Bucky, want to improve the way things are and have concepts that can benefit society. Creating a center that offers short- and long-term fellowships along with supporting the creation of model-prototypes and pilot-programs could yield significant results.

"We now recognize that significant advances in science and the arts have been attributable to individuals who had a different way of thinking and possessing many of the cognitive characteristics associated with Asperger's Syndrome,” said Attwood. “We need people with Asperger's Syndrome to bring new perspectives on the problems of tomorrow.”

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