A Response to the WIRED Article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis” by Kevin Pelphrey
I have a familial connection who used to work for a medical technology company. Her then-supervisor knew I’m autistic. Then-supervisor would ask familial connection if there was a way to get me involved with the company. Familial connection would inform then-supervisor that autistics were not all the same: that I was not, in fact, a software programmer and also could not read code at superspeed and catch errors. Repeat cycle several times.
There is nothing wrong with autistics who are good or excel at coding and software programming and technology and mechanical things. Autistics who are good at those things definitely exist. There are many things wrong with assuming all autistics are the same, that we all have the innate ability to be computer, mechanical, and software geniuses. To take it a step further: it is also wrong to assume that autistic people are valuable because of a handful of us do possess that kind of technological and mechanical ability.
(…We’re people and have a wide array of skillsets and interests, and some of us are really good at computers, like some non-autistic people are!)
Those things are what is wrong with the WIRED article “Autistic People Can Solve Our Cybersecurity Crisis,” along with many other direct messages and subtle implications (including a not-so-pleasant quote referring to autistic children growing up as “the coming tsunami of adults with autism”).
Author Kevin Pelphrey, director of the George Washington University’s autism research institute, argues that we can fix the 70-90% unemployment rate for autistics by hiring us in the cybersecurity industry. He further argues that the this industry has a shortage of labor, so hiring us would fix that problem. His main evidence behind this argument seems to be the fact of Alan Turing’s existence.
In his argument, he utterly dismisses autistics with intellectual and/or other cognitive disabilities as having worth by writing, “At the same time, more than three-quarters of cognitively able individuals with autism have aptitudes and interests that make them well suited to cybersecurity careers. These include being very analytical and detail-oriented as well as honest and respectful of rules.”
It’s hard to know where to begin with unpacking the ableism toward autistic people, especially autistics with cognitive and/or intellectual disabilities, in that quote. It employs a number of tropes, reminiscent of the film Rain Man and common literary tropes. Lastly, he simplifies the solution to a complex issue around employment the cybersecurity industry hiring “cognitively able” autistic people.
Since only some of us are good at tech and we are not, in fact, all Alan Turing, this proposed solution will result in employment for far fewer people than Pelphrey envisions. This is a grievous disservice to autistic people, many of whom are struggling to find employment – and quite often in fields other than tech. This article tells employers that autistic people are only good at tech. It tells the general public that our only redeeming quality is being good at tech, and that we are only worth something if we stop the “monumental waste of human talent.”
The author heads a research institute on autism, but rather distressingly, cannot seem to move past a trope that all autistic people should be employed in tech. Our skillsets and interests are as varied and diverse as autistic people’s traits are. If we want employment, we should receive support to work where we want to. We should receive support to engage in our interests. Our contributions are valuable, regardless of whether they are in the workplace.
The solution to the unemployment rates lies not with increasing supported employment to only one industry. Whether it is through a government vocational program or an autistic youth’s transition planning in school for adulthood or a disability advocacy group, it lies with increasing support for us to do what we want to do.