Is your organisation autistic?

Jun 03 2006 by Max McKeown Print This Article

In 1943, Leo Kanner, an Austrian-American and the first physician in the USA to be identified as a child psychiatrist, published his first paper describing what he termed "early infantile autism" based on his observations of children who had been labelled as slow learners but with abilities that did not fit that label and as behaviourally abnormal yet without the patterns of emotionally disturbed children.

The word "autism" already had a meaning: "escape from reality" (coined by the man who had first used the term schizophrenia) and may have been used by Kanner because he either believed that the children were trying to escape from reality, or that they gave that impression.

Throughout the 50s and early 60s, Freudian psychologists believed that if certain basic psychological bonds between parent and child fail to form, the child would fail to progress. This led to some children being removed from the parental home - since unaffectionate parents were viewed as causing unaffectionate behaviour in their children - and others being brought through the various psychological states in another attempt to overcome the impact of having lived in a "dysfunctional" family.

Needless to say, neither treatment was sufficiently successful. Indeed, scientists have now found that the "autistic brain" differs in several ways and are attempting to clarify whether these differences are the cause - or result - of autism.

These differences include enlarged frontal lobes (the bit that does higher reasoning) and an undersize corpus callosum (the band of tissue linking right and left regions of the brain) leaving a brain that has, "too many connections that are local and not enough that are long-distance between regions".

This lack of long-distance connection means that people with autism have "difficulty bringing together different cognitive functions together in an integrated way […with a…] tendency to hyper focus on detail and miss the big picture."

In some beautifully crafted way, there are numerous parallels between brain science and a certain organic or social view of organisational shape and function.

Considering relationships to be like connections between synapses, for example, allows us to postulate that generally increasing the number of these connections is a good thing. But just like autism, having more of the wrong type of connections or an imbalanced set of connections is likely to cause problems with cognitive functions.

The brain/organisation is not, in this instance, a slow learner or unintelligent but it does suffer from unhelpful wiring that make it hard for individuals with autism to relate to others.

One of the worst fates in autistic organisations is for people to be trapped in structures, processes and cultures that make it difficult for anyone to contribute

This might manifest itself in difficulty translating a stimulus ("come here!") into an action (getting up and walking) without explicit, detailed instructions ("stand up", "walk forwards", "stop").

Similarly, individuals within "autistic" organisations might have problems relating to functions other than their own or reacting to subtle competitive stimuli, meaning that they have to wait for a crisis (or crisis management) to force basic responses.

In her recent Time Magazine piece on autism, Claudia Wallis points out, "perhaps the worst fate is for a person with autism to have a lively intelligence trapped in a body that makes it difficult for others to see that the lights are switched on."

She cited the example of a girl called Hannah - profoundly autistic and thought to be "retarded" (her words not mine) - who a few days before her 13th birthday used a specialised computer keyboard to type "I love Mom", and is now working her way through high school with what appears to be competent intellect and a near photographic memory".

But one of the worst fates in "autistic" organisations is for people to be trapped in structures, processes and cultures that make it difficult for anyone to contribute – with the upshot that the whole is not even equal to the sum of its parts.

Is this over-dramatic? Well, lives are lives and waste is waste. And the cumulative impact this bad wiring in organisations means that they fail to meet the objectives we expect of them.

Social network theory, another newly-prolific kid on the block, supports many of the conclusions that can be drawn from this brain-based analogy since it describes social structures as a series of connected nodes.

Analysis has shown social networks operating on many levels, so it is hardly a shock to find that they have a major impact on how problems are solved, organisations operate, and objectives are achieved.

Inside a network there are nodes (the people) and ties (their relationships) which, when added up, give a person his total "social capital". Represent this in a diagram and it quickly becomes clear that smaller, tighter networks (lots of close connections) are less useful than networks with loose, wide ranging connections because the latter are more likely to suck in new ideas and throw up opportunities.

Old friends and members of the same department, for example, are less likely to know stuff that you don't already know. So it's far better to be connected to a range of networks in which you can learn and co-ordinate or channel effort by bridging the gaps.

Meanwhile, technology is revolutionising networking, making it possible to manage a far larger group of contacts than the 150-odd people that is viewed as the upper limit for conventional social networks as well as enabling us to look for and 'meet' people who we would have been unlikely to cross paths with in the normal course of events.

Social networking websites include (the original), (the first circle of friends concept), (with more page impressions than Google), (described as privileged club of connection), or (where the idea is to try and connect to everyone you have ever known and to anyone that they have ever known in an ever increasing circle of acquaintance).

Used with instant messaging software, sites like these make it possible to have a global network that is many times more valuable than operating within the physical and social limits of habit and proximity.

Organisations are too complex, and beset by too much complexity, to be managed through "command and control" by an isolated group at the top. But perversely, those organisations that are most in need of the brain expanding benefits of social network growth are those least likely to permit the use of such software and approaches at work - presumably because of an unhealthy blend of ignorance, desire for control, and prejudice.

Yet we need to communicate. Restricting individual competence to narrowly-defined areas - a form of corporate "idiot-savance" - is not enough to meet organisational objectives. At some point (sometimes it takes only a couple of people, occasionally only one) an organisation's size outstrips it's connective intelligence. As it grows, it will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns and eventually become too stupid to survive -regardless of how many individually smart people it employs.

It is this regressive evolution which probably lies at the root of Vodafone's $20billion loss – and the converse which explains Nissan's dramatic turnaround under a CEO who has been able to create the kind of (often self-organising) connective tissue that organisations need if they want to make use of all that lively but wasted intelligence.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

As an autistic person, I find this view of autism not all that different than asking, 'Is your organization a Nigger organization' or 'Is your organization a girly organization?' It's offensive, especially when using stereotypes of autism that aren't correct, and using the term autistic in a negative sense.

One would think part of embracing the changing workplace of today would include embracing diversity, including the ability for autistic people to participate in unique ways, ways which technology and less rigid workplaces can allow autistics to thrive in modern and progressive institutions. However, using the term 'autistic' to describe the negative traits of 'old school' organizations is not a good way of embracing diversity.

The view of autism presented is also a view which concentrates on the absence of 'good' in autism. Increasingly, out of necessity, complex business processes and systems require people who can both specialize (although not in the same ways as our parents specialized, but in a dynamic and fast changing way) and see connections between business goals - something, ironically, autistics are often good at. Sometimes you can't see the forest without seeing the trees.

I'm sure the author thought this was a clever metaphor to describe the rigid organizations that seem all-too-common. And his point is valid. I just wish he expressed it in a way that didn't insult people that had very little to do with the problem he seeks to address.

Joel Smith

Not only is this a rather ablist ('racist' in the disability sense) article, it devalues individuals with autism who are able to work. I have to agree with the above commenter.

Our software firm took a chance with an autistic who didn't interview very well but had very good scores and an extensive resume. Our management actually interacts quite frequently with him, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, works best and seems to be the most productive. We've actually seen some remarkable contributions from him. The key is not demanding the kinds of face to face interactions that are difficult for them and using the communication tools of their choice like instant messaging and regular emails. He's actually very responsive in his writing, puts in a lot of overtime and will persist in getting the job done. He is one of our best troubleshooters with our intranet applications and is going to be promoted soon. He tends to do some private R&D and skunkworks on the job but when you look at what he does or ask him about it, it is often very relevant and useful for the long term vision we have. We have other engineers who sometimes pick up the slack when he does this. We find it actually helps relieve him from burnout which happens often. We've also had him at barbecues with his family and while he might be bizarre at times socializing with the rest of our staff, he can sometimes be rather entertaining and shows a healthy sense of humor, even if it is a bit on the hammy side.

So when I think about organizations with autism, it has a very positive meaning to me which suggests innovation and diverse communication mediums. To characterize organizations with autism as negative contradicts both reality and neglects the positive contributions of individuals on the autistic spectrum of all levels of ability.

I think you should do more research on your topic before churning out artlicles like these. While political correct language is often wordy and meaningless, at least try avoid using a particular group of people's medical condition as a 'slam' to a particular subject in your writing.

Joseph Gagon Texas

I think that the two posters may have missed the point because they were offended... fair enough but he doesn't say autism is always 'all' bad, and the science is accurate (I read the Time article from which he quotes) sometimes all 'disabilities' or 'differences' can have benefits but if he had said 'is your organisation myopic' or 'blind' or 'deaf' or 'inflexible' or 'paranoid' or 'schizophrenic' and used the individual as a metaphor would they have complained? He is just saying that some people can be trapped in organisations in the way that some people are trapped in bodies that do not respond as they would prefer - that's a fact, it's neither insulting (as a man who has considerable experience fostering children who have different levels of autism - itself a very, very broad term!!) nor racist in the way (somewhat hysterically claimed) - he simply seems to be concerned that people's lives are wasted AND curious enough to extend the comparison.

Legrand LA

Rather than get into debate, from the perspective of the article, it seems to be saying that organizations are like autistic brains. Ironically, the more 'tight' the social cliques (something autistics don't do and as one poster mentioned, some of them are more willing to use instant messaging than the socially functioning types). It might be true that an organization of autistic and geeky workers are more likely to create an organization that is less like an autistic's brain. It could almost be seen as something compensatory or complimenting the general environment. I agree with the poster who said that those with autism and Asperger's Syndrome can be valuable employees. According to HR, we have two people here with diagnosis and quite a few others who claim ADD and ADHD and one with MS. I think the ADA basically ensures these people are not discriminated against. While I think I get the metaphor, I think there could have been some very poor potential implication or miscommunication by stated it the way it was stated. It doesn't detract from the fact that the article's logic might have had some correct observation or value to it or that the metaphor was necessarily poor. The bottom poster makes the same mistake of saying his fostered autistic kids were 'trapped' in their bodies. That's nonsense...and I'd feel sorry for those children who had a parent who thought that about them.

Brian Petersen

Referring to the reader below - why does he feel that autistic children cannot be said to be 'trapped in their bodies'?

Some severely autistic children are unable to communicate because of the way that their brains (part of the body) are constructed - in the example that Max quotes the girl is freed from this brain trap by being given a specially designed keyboard...

If you are working with someone diagnosed with autism then they are probably not severely autistic because severe autism has typically prevented work of this kind - they would appear to be the exception not the rule.

And if you had looked after children with severe autism then perhaps you would be more gentle with the man who has fostered those children ;) foster carers have feelings as well you know...

Carole Edinburgh

I did some surfing and found that Max is hardly the first to use Autistic to describe (via metaphor admittedly) something other than a person for example take the following:

'The unrealistic mathematical models of 'autistic economics' would be bad enough if they stayed in the classroom, detached from the real world.'

It comes from an article 'Autistic Economics vs. the Environment' in a newsletter called the 'post-autistic economics newsletter' which uses autistic in it's original sense of being lost in “imaginary worlds”. Not saying that it's a good or bad idea but it's seems a relevant use of the term with a whole movement behind it.

Andrew S Birmingham

Wondered if anyone out there had picked up on Max's article and found the following link from a Phd blogger who also has a son with autism (or should that be autistic son?)

Her article is worth reading...

'What I find striking in McKeown’s analogy is his noting that it is the wiringâ€'neurological in an autistic person, technological in a social network connected through MySpace, IM, email, and moreâ€'that can, so to speak, screw up the connections, whether between the parts of the brain or among individuals. However intelligent the individuals in the organization, or enlarged the brain’s frontal lobes are, the result may be a lack of connectivity, with the appearance of stupidity.

Charlie has always had a big head with a big brain. We are convinced of his intelligence, though Charlie’s difficulty (and frequent inability) to connect sensory data (a moving car in front of his bike, a sentence a teacher says) to his thoughts and perceptions of the world does result in him appearing to be of less than average intelligence.

It makes me wonder: Will we soon be hearing about MBA programs that offer courses not in business psychology, but in business neurology?'

Darrell Kansas

About twenty years ago I was part of a Community Development team working in what you would call a `housing project' in Scotland. The work was really to foster organisational skills in the local community, and our main partner was Strathclyde Regional Council, which was then the largest local authority in Western Europe. One morning I had - unusually - some desk-time to prepare for a heavy meeting. I thought I'd better get my thoughts together before going in to the lions' den, and started writing a list. The more thought I expended on it, the stranger the list became. Strange, but somehow familiar. `Where have I seen this before...and what, exactly am I describing?' Eventually I decided to show it to a sympathetic colleague, the Community Health Worker. She scanned the list, gasped, and turned red: `You shouldn't be doing this!' `', says I - `I'm just trying to do get ready for a meeting.' `This is well outside your remit', she says. I make various Scottish sounds indicating confusion: `och, ehhh, umph..I'm just trying to do my job...' `Well', she says, `if you pursue this I'll make a formal complaint. You are not qualified to work with autistic children.' And then the penny drops. I look at the list, and that's why it's strange-but-familiar. It's pretty much a textbook account of the autistic spectrum. `Ah', says I. `that explains it. But this is actually a list of the problems the community has with Strathclyde Regional Council.' A few years later, I worked with the parents of autistic children, and one of the useful things I was able to say was: you are experts on the intense individuality of your child> You know they are autistic, and you know it in complex detail - but the agencies you are struggling with are autistic - and they don't know it, and they don't know that they don't know, and if they get an inkling of it, they have automatic defence mechanisms....and here are some of them.....

Alan Steel Paisley, Scotland