The autistic scientist and the world of work

Perhaps no phenomenon in the world of autism stimulates our thinking about employment and its challenges than the autistic savant. The savant has extraordinary skills in areas such as math, memory and music (“an island of genius”, in the words of the late savant expert Dr. Darold Treffert), although in most cases, these skills are accompanied by profound incapacities to function in society or in the workplace.

Over the past three decades, several autistic savants have come to public notice. Kim Peek, one of the models of rain man, was able to memorize a book in a single reading – and is said to have memorized over 12,000 books in his lifetime. Musician Leslie Lemke can hear a piece of music once and play it back perfectly. Stephen Wiltshire, the best known scholar, can see a setting once, including large cityscapes, and draw it in great detail. Lemke and Wiltshire were able to find work and income tied to their rare talents. But most autistic savants have failed to find a role in the world of work, nor have other autistic adults who possess forms of savant skills.

David Nisson, 34, is an autistic scientist now living in the Sacramento area. By age four, Nisson had very limited language, repetitive, turning, and stimming behaviors, and registered as very late in developmental milestones. The public school district recommended that he be placed in a special education class, and an administrator even suggested his family consider institutionalization at the then nearby Sonoma Developmental Center.

Around the same time, however, his mother Mary discovered that David had found an old chemistry book from his father’s high school and was reading and solving chemistry problems. She declined the special education class and instead enrolled him in a private Montessori elementary school, later followed by high school home schooling by Mary. By age 8, he was testing above a grade 12 reading level. Throughout his middle and high school years, he continued to demonstrate math and science skills at the college level and above. In 2000, Dr. Treffert diagnosed David with savant syndrome autism.

Mary left her full-time teaching job to teach adult education in the evenings and help David during the day as he entered the University of California, Davis. She served as his assistant in his undergraduate particle physics classes. After earning his bachelor’s degree with highest honors, he pursued condensed matter research and pursued graduate studies at UC Davis. Mary continued to serve as David’s aide, including ensuring his safety in the lab. His postgraduate work, under the supervision of Dr. NJ Curro, focused on condensed matter physics, and in 2015 he completed his thesis, “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Studies of Topological Insulators and Materials with Large spin-orbit coupling”.

After David obtained his doctorate, a number of major American laboratories contacted him regarding opportunities to pursue research on topological insulators. But he and Mary feared for her safety in the physics lab. Mary explains, “A physics lab can be a dangerous place. David has a condition known as hyper-focus in which he is so focused on a particular task that he shuts out the environment around him entirely. This can lead to significant damage if an accident occurs in the laboratory.

Also, the job offers would have required David to move. But David’s support network, not only Mary but also her father and other family members, was in the Sacramento area. He has been deemed by the state developmental services system as unable to live independently and requires 24-hour supervision.

After some thought, he and Mary decided to pursue a plan B: a job in the field of computer programming, in which David also had high skill levels. Mary had heard about autistic employment programs for software developers in the Bay Area and she and David traveled to meet with several companies. “We spoke with a recruiter from a top tech company who basically told us that they only hire ‘aspie’ people with autism, who don’t need a protective regimen, who can use transportation safely without any help and who can handle ‘office politics’ and other challenges that make the workplace more difficult than college programs are,” Mary recalls. “They said that ‘they would create programs to include aid-dependent people like David, but that will take time.’

Additionally, moving to the Bay Area, albeit only 90 minutes from Sacramento, would have required building a whole new structure of supports and relationships. “In Davis, where we live, David not only has his support network, but he also knows and is known to many local residents. He is part of several support groups, such as Yolo People First and Davis Team. He would not want this community to start over in a new environment.

Plan C then became a software development job in the Sacramento area. In 2018, a local employment agency for adults with developmental differences, Community and Employment Services, helped David find a job as a website developer for his parent company. In 2019, David added a volunteer role on the website development team for UPchieve, a nonprofit that connects low-income high school students with free online tutors.

Today, David continues his projects as a web developer. Thanks to financial assistance from the state development services, he has his own apartment, where he receives support services for daily living.

Dr. Bryna Siegel is one of the pioneers of autism studies who has provided services to autistic children and adults since 1972, including diagnosing David’s autism in the early 1990s. Siegel notes that among adults diagnosed autistic, savants are rare – well below 10% of the autistic population and probably below 5%, depending on the definition of savantism – and generally struggle to find a role in the world of work. “I remember a client I met as a child who had complete mastery of ferns. Yet he was never able to translate this mastery or indeed one of his scholarly memory skills into a role in the working world; his poor judgment and lack of social skills undermined his savantism.

Paul Orfalea, a dyslexic, who founded and built Kinko’s copy center business empire, would lecture in the early 2000s on how adults with developmental differences have unusual talents and quote the autistic scholar in rain man. With his incredible calculating skills, couldn’t Raymond have gotten a job as an actuary, Orfalea asked his audience. But as David and other adults of varying skill levels demonstrate, adapting to the workplace isn’t easy. Raymond would not only need strong supports, but also a very patient and flexible work environment. Although the number of these workplaces is growing, they remain few and far between.

In a recent interview with the community autism television show, “Life on the Autism Spectrum,” David is optimistic about his current life. He views his current roles on the website as making real contributions. But he and Mary also recognize that he is capable of taking on more sophisticated challenges in computer programming and that he could, in the years to come, look for another job. He did not rule out a return to particle physics. In the interview, David explains that he is open to other opportunities in programming or physics, as long as they are in safe and supportive work environments.

Maria D. Ervin