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Autism: a disorder or a valuable resource?

Peter Kerkers
Peter Kerkers has finished his bachelor Economie en Bedrijfseconomie and his Master Finance. Furthermore, he is the chairman of Asset | Economics 2018-2019.

We have all heard about it and there is a very good chance that you know someone who actually has it: Autism. More and more research is done on this group of complex disorders of brain development. But what are the actual societal costs for these disorders? Or better, what are the possible benefits that autism could have for our society?

What is it?

The term autism is used for a group of complex disorders of brain development. The disorders can be characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. Based on this characterization, it is possible to classify the disorders in varying degree. A commonly used term to merge all autism disorders is ASD (autism spectrum disorder). In 2012, in the United States 15 in every 1,000 people has some form of autism, which is a doubling compared to 10 years before. This is mainly explained by the fact that since 2000 the America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has collected data on a regular base.

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Economic burden on society

To get a good eye on all forms of autism much research has been done and has to be done. All people pay for this research by taxes, which can be seen as a first cost for society. The other costs of autism can be separated in three different groups: Direct medical costs, direct non-medical costs and indirect costs. The first category is mainly about medical treatments, medications and therapies. The second category consists of child- and adult care and forms of support that autistic people need to be able to participate in our society. Think of special education, modified cars and housing and supported employment. The last category refers to the lost productivity, either by the autistic person itself or by persons who take care of this person, for example other family members.

If the level of prevalence grows at the same rate in the upcoming years as it did in the past years, an estimation of the societal costs for the US related to autism in 2025 is $460.8 billion, which represents 1.5 to 1.6% of the US GDP.

Value of a disorder

Recently, a change in the way people think about autism can be observed. Previously, people were tempted to see autism as a disorder that had to be corrected. Nowadays they see the advantages of autistic people over people without. More emphasize is put on the strengths of people with autism, seeing them as a unique resource.  For example, a capability that people with autism often have is an exceptional memory. They are thus less likely to misremember something. Furthermore, people with autism often outperform others in auditory- and visual tasks and non-verbal tests of intelligence.

Big companies have picked up the idea of autistic people as a valuable resource. The companies train them to go through a digital program and look at every detail of it, for example. Such a task is boring for others, but it doesn’t disturb autistic people.  Microsoft has started pilot programs for autistic people with the idea to hire more of them . In this way,  Microsoft also diversifies its workforce.

Taken all together, the idea that autists are people with a disorder seems old fashioned to me. If society gives them the opportunity to do the things they are good at, they can be a valuable resource. In this way, they can boost society instead of being a burden. I think there is a good possibility that autistic people are the driving forces behind our economic development in the future. So why treat them as people with a disorder? Start to reap the benefits!

Some examples of autistic people who have improved our society:

  • Albert Einstein
  • Amadeus Mozart
  • Charles Darwin
  • Isaac Newton

Find more facts about autism here

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