Perhaps no phenomenon in the autism world stimulates our thinking about employment and its challenges than the autistic savant. The savant possesses extraordinary skills in such fields as math, memory and music (“an island of genius”, in the words of the late Dr. Darold Treffert, expert in savantism), though in most cases these skills are accompanied by profound inabilities to function in society or the workplace.
Over the past three decades several autistic savants have come to public notice. Kim Peek, one of the models for Rain Man, was able to memorize a book upon a single reading—and was said to have memorized over 12,000 books during his life. Musician Leslie Lemke can hear a musical piece once and play it back perfectly. Stephen Wiltshire, the most well-known savant, can view a setting one time—including large cityscapes—and draw it in minute detail. Lemke and Wiltshire have been able to find work and income linked to their rare talents. But most autistic savants have not had such success in finding a role in the work world, nor have other autistic adults who possess forms of savant skills.
David Nisson, 34, is an autistic savant living today in the Sacramento area. At age four, Nisson had very limited language, repetitive, spinning and stimming behaviors, and registered as way behind on developmental milestones. The public school district recommended he be placed in a special education class, and one administrator even suggested his family consider institutionalization at the then-nearby Sonoma Developmental Center.
Around the same time, though, his mother Mary discovered that David had found an old high school chemistry book of his father’s and was reading and solving chemistry problems. She declined the special education class, and instead enrolled him in a private Montesori elementary school, followed later by high school home schooling by Mary. By age 8, he was testing above a twelfth grade reading level. Throughout his middle school and high school years, he continued to demonstrate math and science skills at college level and above. In 2000, Dr. Treffert diagnosed David with savant syndrome autism.
Mary shifted from her job as a full-time schoolteacher, to teach adult education classes in the evening and assist David during the day, as he entered the University of California, Davis. She served as an aid to him in his undergraduate particle physics classes. After he earned his bachelor’s degree with highest honors, he pursued condensed-matter research and pursued advanced degrees at UC Davis. Mary continued to serve as an aid to David, including assuring his safety in the laboratory. His graduate work, under the direction of Dr. NJ Curro, focused on condensed-matter physics, and in 2015 he completed his dissertation, “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Studies of Topological Insulators and Materials with a Large Spin-Orbit Coupling.”
After David received his PhD, a number of major United States laboratories contacted him regarding opportunities to continue topological insulator research. But he and Mary had concerns for his 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 concentrated on a particular task that he shuts out entirely the surrounding environment. That can result in significant harm if an accident occurs in the lab.”
Additionally the job offers would have required that David relocate. But David ‘s support network— not only Mary but also his father and other family members— were in the Sacramento area. He has been determined by the state’s developmental services system as not able to live independently, and requires 24-hour supervision.
After some consideration, he and Mary decided to turn to a Plan B: employment in the computer programming field, in which David also possessed high skill levels. Mary had heard about autism employment programs for software developers in the Bay Area and she and David traveled to meet with several firms. “We spoke with a recruiter from a leading tech company who basically told us they were only hiring ‘aspie’ autistic people, who do not need protective supervision, who can safely use transportation without any help, and who can handle the ‘office politics’ and other challenges that make the workplace more difficult than may college programs are,” Mary recalls. “They said they would create programs to include aid-dependent people like David, but it will take some time.”
Further, moving to the Bay Area, though only 90 minutes from Sacramento, would have required building a whole new structure of supports and relations. “In Davis, where we live, David not only has his support network, but also knows and is known by many local residents. He’s part of several support groups, such as Yolo People First and Team Davis. He wouldn’t have that community starting over in a new environment.”
Plan C then became employment in software development in the Sacramento area. In 2018, a local employment agency for adults with developmental differences, Community and Employment Services, helped David get a job as the website developer for its parent company. In 2019 David added a volunteer role on the website development team for UPchieve, a non-profit that connects low income high school students with free online tutors.
Today David continues his projects as a website developer. Through funding assistance by the state developmental services, he has an apartment of his own, where he receives daily supported living services.
Dr. Bryna Siegel is one of the pioneers of autism studies who has been providing services and to children and adults with autism since 1972—including diagnosing David’s autism in the early 1990s. Siegel notes that among adults with an autism diagnosis, savants are rare—well below 10% of the autism population and likely below 5%, depending on how savantism is defined—and usually struggle to find any role in the work world. “I recall one client whom I met as a child and who had a comprehensive mastery of ferns. Yet, he was never able to translate this mastery or in fact any of his savant memory skills into a role in the work world; his lack of judgment and lack of social skills, generald his savantism.”
Paul Orfalea, a dyslexic, who founded and built the business empire of Kinko’s copying centers, would give talks in the early 2000s about how adults with developmental differences have unusual talents and would cite the autistic savant in Rain Man. With his amazing calculation skills, couldn’t Raymond have gotten a job as an actuarial, Orfalea would ask his audience. But as David and other adults with savant skills of various levels demonstrate, the workplace fit is not an easy one. Raymond would need not only extensive supports, but also a highly patient and flexible workplace. While the number of these workplaces are growing, they remain few and far between.
In a recent interview with the autism community television show, “Life on the Autism Spectrum,” David is upbeat about his current life. He regards his current website roles as making real contributions. But he and Mary also acknowledge that he is capable of more sophisticated challenges in computer programming, and may in the next years look for other employment. 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, so long as they are in safe and supportive workplace environments.