Like many other countries, with growing number of autistic children, autism is now becoming a familiar situation in Bangladesh. Given the reality, we have to live with the situation and try our best to face and improve it in a productive way. According to the Ministry of Social Welfare, the total number of persons with ASDs (Autism Spectrum Disorders) could be as high as 1.4 million in Bangladesh.
The situation in advanced countries appears to be far worse. In the USA, the current estimate is one in 68 -- or one in 42 among boys, suffers from autism. Similar high numbers can be found in other advanced economies. For example, a study in South Korea found that one in 38 children was affected.
Autistic children prefer to isolate themselves from social interaction-to detach themselves in their own world. There is no doubt that taking care of these children and helping them grow their sensory processing capability, as much as possible, itself a daunting task. Along with time, these children will be growing up, entering into youth and adulthood. Integrating them in social and economic spheres is a formidable task.
If we keep them outside the purview of economic activities, society will not only be deprived of productive engagement of this growing population, but also, most importantly, these fellow human beings will be deprived of the dignity of working, contributing, earning and taking care of their families.
As neither our teaching methodologies and school environments, nor work processes are designed by taking into consideration the unique characteristic of autistic individuals, although around half of those with autism are of average intelligence or above, they do far worse than they should at school and at work. In France, almost 90 per cent of autistic children attend primary school, but only 1.0 per cent makes it to high school. Despite America's harder effort to include autistic pupils, numbers suggest less than half the graduates from high school. In Britain, only 12 per cent of higher-functioning autistic adults work full time. From global context, the United Nations estimates that 80 per cent of those with autism are not in the workforce. These numbers represent a tragic human toll, as millions of people live idle and isolated outside the world of work. Loving parents and siblings struggle to know how to help, but they are quite helpless in integrating them in productive work. We need to look for the means for integrating them into workforce, not only to enable them to make contribution to GDP (gross domestic product), but also to empower them to live a dignified life.
There is no doubt that autism imposes heavy economic costs, reducing economic growth and swelling disability rolls. According to the Economist, one study suggests that those costs could be as high as 2.0 per cent of GDP in the USA. Fortunately, this need not be the case. Theory of work process design and automation suggests that work process could be redesigned to allocate productive roles to these autistic individuals, which are executable by them.
Normal adults contribute to work through five primary means: 1. Sensing the environment and perceiving the situation; 2. analysing the work and taking decision of performing action to produce desired outputs to reach to the goal; 3. executing actions through manipulation and muscular force; 4. memorising data along with standards of inputs and outputs, and rules to process as well as to comply with them; and 5. communicating with fellow workers. Without the help of any technological tool, a grown up adult can perform meaningful tasks, as complex as catching fish or haunting rabbits, by executing all these roles. In course of time, human beings started developing technologies to delegate many roles to machines, to improve productivity, safety and comfort of doing work. Very often, this evolution of work process means integration of automation in production function for delegating more roles to machines, eventually making work processes free from giving any role to human operators at all. Extreme form of this evolution is termed Fourth Industrial revolution-factories without people to manufacture industrial goods.
The delegation of roles from human beings to machines started with the invention of some primitive tools such as sharp stones or harpoons, which could be projected to objects like animal or fish in easier ways than chasing and catching them with bare hands. The invention of wind and water power, steam engine, internal combustion engine and electrical motors simply accelerated this delegation to harness energy of nature for productive purposes. Similarly, the invention of low cost sensor, computing devices and algorithms has opened the opportunity to delegate roles of sensing and perception to machines. The development of high-density storage and software have created the opportunity of delegating the role of job analysis, decision making and giving commands to smart actuating devices, could be termed as robotic devices, to get meaningful job done with increasinglyless or no engagement of human operators. Coordination between production agents, whether human or machines, could now easily be handled by numerous means of communication technologies. Virtually, every role what human can play in executing a work process could gradually be delivered to machines to run production. The economics of cost of labor and machines is going to determine the space at which we will be progressing in increasingly giving more roles to machines.
Certainly, these autistic individuals cannot executeevery role like the way any other normal adultwould be performing in a work process. But, that does not mean that they cannot play any meaningful role at all. They can spot patterns or errors in data that are invisible to most non-autistics, making them attractive employees for software firms. Even less gifted autistic people often have an extraordinary capacity to focus and an eye for detail that make them effective workers. Their desire for routine and dislike of change make them loyal ones, too. They can excel at jobs that require precision and repetition, such as updating databases, stocking shelves, organizing objects or tinkering with broken objects. Limited disability does not make some one fully non-productive, as long work process is redesigned to delegate those roles, requiring disable capabilities, to machines. There are many such examples around us.
With the growth of basic component technologies, virtually there is no technological barrier to delegate any role to machines. Therefore, by taking into consideration of unique capabilities of autistic individuals, we can select suitable work processes and redesign them in an appropriate way, which provision productive roles to autistic individuals in an economic way, what they can perform. Our investment in work process innovation will open the opportunity to turn this huge growing population of autistic people into productive work force. Normal market force will likely not make necessary investment to open this opportunity to them. To address such market failure, it’s suggested that Government should step in with suitable policies and regulations. Suggested interventions are: 1. Government should develop process innovation laboratory in selected universities and provide funding to undertake necessary research and development activities to select candidate work process and redesign them, making them friendly to autistic individuals to execute, 2. Provide incentive to target firms for adopting redesigned work process and engage autistic people to execute them, and 3. Provide seed capital funding so that new firms can be incubated to commercialize such process innovation solution to target firms and industries, as a whole.
Such policy and regulatory intervention of process innovation for creating scope of productive engagement of autistic people will not only expand our productive work force, but also will develop the institutional capacity of process innovation to create our unique competitive advantage. Such competence will be the nurturing ground of undertaking further process innovation work to enable us to produce better products at as less cost than before. Instead of terming the growing autistic population as the labiality, we must invest in developing innovation capacity to redesign target work processes to accommodate them as productive work force, as well as creating the new window of national capacity for improving our global competitiveness, through process innovation.
M Rokonuzzaman Ph.D, academic, researcher on Technology, Innovation and Policy, is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering North South University, Bangladesh. [email protected]