Perspectives on innovative and creative intelligence

We asked some of our most innovative autistic employees to share their thoughts on innovation, autism, and more.

New research from Cambridge University Professor, author, and auticon UK advisor Professor Simon Baron-Cohen concludes in his new book, The Pattern Seekers that many autistic people have advanced innovative and creative intelligence. With this in mind, we asked some of our most innovative autistic employees to share their thoughts on innovation, autism, and more. Below we are sharing some highlights from their comments:


Marc Ristau, Senior Consultant from auticon Germany
Beat Steiner, Senior Consultant from auticon Switzerland
Aidan Millar-Powell, Senior Consultant from auticon Australia

Q: In yourself, do you see habits of a hyper-systemizer (defined as one who frequently wants to put things in order.) If so, how does this enable your work at auticon? Do you see hyper-systemizing as a benefit?

Beat Steiner “Yes, especially for generating data retrieval keys or reference designation systems. I use data visualization as a support tool to see how well my systems perform in classifying data and how consistent systems and data are. This is not in contradiction to the fact that I am chaotic in nature.”

Aidan Millar-Powell “Personally, I do systemize things, but I’m not Rain Man and it’s not necessarily an autistic trait. Being an autistic person meant that I lacked executive functioning in my younger years. As a result, I would fail in many pursuits, constantly undermined by small things I had not addressed during a venture. This is normal for anyone who is trying anything, but when learning difficulties get in the way it can turn a learning experience into soul-crushing life of consistent failure. As a reaction to that, and as I matured, I now hold myself to an even higher standard of operational and organizational integrity. Consequently, I now operate with a far greater degree of certainty, preparation, and competency. I not only build trust with people through empathy, but also through capability. Systemizing is incidental.”

Marc Ristau “From early childhood on I was systemizing the world around me, how I perceive others, my toys, my daily routine, how I communicate, just look at the attached picture of me sleeping next to my arranged toys, sorted by how much I liked them. The teddy always had to lay in the same spot, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I am frequently seeing beauty in order and seeing order where no one else saw it, even in simple things like traffic lights or language patterns.

This trait also led me to usually systemize given tasks and rather write a framework of building blocks to solve these or other problems than to implement business logic directly.”

Q: Research suggests autism contributes to Innovative and creative intelligence. What is your reaction to this claim? Do you recognize this in your own work and thinking?

Marc Ristau “Hyperconnectivity, hyperreactivity and hyperplasticity of autistic brains not only enable us to process more bandwidth on the input channels, but this also implies both increased frequency in forming and adaptivity in changing meaningful connections. Therefore, autistic neurology takes more factors into consideration than in neurotypical approaches and because of that the likelihood there’s something considered that no one else has paid attention to yet is also increasing the likelihood that this can be seen as innovative or at least creative. I do recognize this mainly in my perception, but I can also “watch my brain think” about the bigger picture and how many associations it takes into consideration when thinking about a seemingly simple circumstance, which gives every thought a further growing context, the longer I “watch”, and eventually there will be a solution that no one else saw before.”

Aidan Millar-Powell “I understand who that question is designed for, but I don’t know if that’s the correct approach to understanding the advantage of autistic people in the workplace. Human ingenuity is a rather complex and intangible concept, no amount of focus groups, pie charts, or catchy articles citing recent studies will change that from complex to merely complicated or even simple. Autism isn’t an additive that merely alters a neurotypical brain, it isn’t super-juice, it’s a whole perspective. We are all of us, NTs and autistics alike, innovative and creatively intelligent in our own ways. It’s just that autistic people tend to have less or different apprehensions about how, when, where, and why we pursue that creative intelligence.”

Beat Steiner “To be innovative is not given to all autists. I am among the lucky ones. Innovation is one of my key strengths. If my need for innovation is missing at work, I introduce it by developing a tool automating routine work.”

Q: Innovators love to create and to create solutions to problems. What have you created or innovated in your lifetime? What was the problem and did your innovation solve anything?

Aidan Millar-Powell “My biggest creation thus far is myself. That doesn’t mean I’m “self-made” as I might have done the work, but I had a lot of help! Life has been very rough time up until I started with auticon, part of the journey was building myself into a person that could withstand the world. This took a different type of thinking, of getting up at 4am every day just to practice coding, of pouring myself into everything I do and approach. Where I used to fail, I now excel. Another aspect of this learning is understanding how it takes a team of people supporting me, to get me there in one piece. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by the right people at this time in my career.”

Marc Ristau “While I was just finishing school, I started creating my own very lean content management system, because existing ones were bulky, used a lot of resources and were inconvenient to use. Within that I already implemented animation modules in JavaScript, when the rest of the world still animated websites with Flash as I could see this was a dead end from the moment I investigated its architecture.

I was always obsessed with effective and comfortable human/machine interfaces and began diving into UX for that reason, which led me to create a data model UI framework to work around the issue of rapidly evolving user requirements and let users connect data around several corners. Building on top of that I am working on a self-explaining crowd sourced collaboration process & big data environment, which is supposed to solve the need for rapidly evolving processes, like it was the case with the beginning of the pandemic.”

Q: In your opinion, what is the relationship between autism and innovation?

Aidan Millar-Powell “It’s the same as it is for any person. Like I said we are all innovative in our own way, it’s just a matter of following through and seeing outside the limitations we artificially build around ourselves. Autistic people don’t subscribe to the cultural background noise and silly assumptions we make about each other, we simply walk up to a problem and address it in a way that is less sensational and more matter-of-fact. It’s actually that noise which gets in the way of us excelling in some social settings, it’s simply too loud mentally.”

Beat Steiner “Perseverance, precision, concentration, but also out-of-the-box thinking, questioning existing systems and traditions. Sometimes seeing the needle in the haystack. Curiosity across system (and especially organizational) boundaries, crawling through product catalogs and puzzling pieces together in a different way than others do. This is not only true for physical objects but also for processes.”

Marc Ristau “I am convinced that many big innovators are at least somewhat on the autistic spectrum and were assumingly just lucky enough not having the need to be diagnosed because it worked out well for them, mainly because they grew up in supportive or wealthy environments. I can see by his humor, way of using words and particularly from his body language that renowned innovator Elon Musk must be quite likely one of us and it’s also widely known that many others in tech are open about their diagnosis. Being autistic invokes some kind of urge to not only find a solution that excels in a given context, but one that also contributes to bigger goals.”

Q: What is your secret to keep your motivation high against all the odds?

Aidan Millar-Powell “Ego and amnesia. You must build yourself up to be a person that holds expectations of yourself, as well as the world around you. Accept that it is ok for you to think the way you think and that everyone else is mostly wrong. Be egotistical enough to believe you are the only person for the job, but wise enough to know when you are not. Then accept it is not always about being right, especially when it comes to relationships, and that will allow enough room for personal growth and humility. As for amnesia, I had something to say about forgetting your failures and mistakes… but what exactly, I can’t remember.”

Beat Steiner “Inject innovation into boring work. Persistence wins against many odds. But I have to admit that I tend to lose patience easier than 4 years ago. The odds are created by disconnecting yourself from your own true nature. Stop masking consciously and subconsciously. Accept your diversity. Experience who and how you are. Then accept yourself the way you are and reconnect to yourself. Only then you are capable of progressing and not just do more sophisticated masking, leading to even more exhaustion.”

Marc Ristau “Allow yourself to give up for a given day and reset your motivation with every new day, every morning. Accept all that happened as status quo. This way, you can start every day like it was the first one.”

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