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TSA May Have Perfect Job For Those On The Spectrum


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Think of the times when you’ve had to carry out a repetitive, boring task. Now recall how quickly your mind began to wander.

That is a significant problem in many real-world jobs, and is a special challenge for Transportation Security Administration baggage screeners at airports, who have to look at hundreds of X-rayed bags, trying to pick out dangerous objects from jumbles of hair dryers, toiletries, socks and shoes.

It may be, though, that one group is naturally better suited to this task — people with autism.

A study published this year by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Minnesota found that men with high-functioning autism were just as accurate and almost as fast as typically developing people in finding weapons in X-ray images of baggage.

More important, their performance improved as time went on, particularly in correctly identifying bags that had no weapons.

Senior author Marlene Behrmann, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon, said “we were able to demonstrate statistically that the individuals with autism stayed more true to the task compared with people who became distracted more easily.”

The study is part of a growing push to find jobs that people with autism may actually perform better than so-called neurotypical individuals.

In the case of airport baggage screeners, past tests have shown they often miss planted weapons or bombs. Researchers say part of the reason may be a psychological phenomenon known as the “prevalence effect” — we aren’t very good at spotting things that only come along every once in awhile.

In the CMU-Pitt study, the 13 men without autism got worse as time went on at identifying bags that had no weapons, while the men with autism actually got better.

The authors suggested three possible reasons: people with autism may just be better at visual searches; they “may not get bored as quickly with an individualistic detail-oriented task;” and they may be more anxious about failing.

“It is not difficult to describe tasks that present disproportionate hurdles for individuals with (autism),” the authors wrote. “However, a more optimistic view — and the one that we take in this paper — is that ASD individuals have unique abilities that can give them an advantage over others at performing some tasks.”

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. DR Al Pfadt says:

    This is what customized employment is all about!

  2. Jon Brock says:

    It’s important to emphasise that, overall, people with autism were no better at the task and were in fact slightly slower than controls.

    Unfortunately, this is another one of those studies where the authors failed to support their original prediction and so poked around until they found something they could make a nice story out of.

    The task was also highly unrealistic because there was a weapon in every other item of luggage – the difficulty in these tasks in real life is the fact that 99.9% of suitcases won’t have a weapon in them, so it’s really hard to stay alert for that one suitcase that does. It’s possible that people with autism are particularly good at these search tasks where there’s a low probability of a target. But that isn’t what the study looked at.

    It’s interesting to me that people with autism weren’t better at this task using real life objects when (in other studies) they are often found to be better at finding geometric shapes. But again the study didn’t do a direct comparison.

    I agree completely with the authors’ view that we should look for autistic strengths as well as difficulties. It’s really important to look for occupations that might particularly suit people with autism. But it’s doubly important not to torture the data to fit a preconceived narrative.

  3. Sherelle says:

    Sounds better than packing boxes in a factory.

  4. Sam Crawford says:

    Jon Brock
    you correctly point out that “overall, people with autism were no better at the task and were in fact slightly slower than controls.” This was not the point of the article. Emphasizing the importance of these findings dismisses the importance of the study.
    If your money was on the line would you want the employee who performs well for the amount of time it takes to complete a study or one that performs most efficiently for the course of a career? No brainer there.
    The important finding from the study that the article points out is that performance improves for those with asd and decreases for those without.
    You are obviously well-educated but your comment is short-sighted and cavalier.

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