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Autism spectrum can bring benefits to cyber workforce

LAS VEGAS—Rhett Greenhagen may not have the best sense of social cues. When it comes to patterns and link analysis, however, this one-time CIA counter-intelligence professional is hard to beat.

Greenhagen, who has spent more than a decade working for the U.S. military and the intelligence community, was diagnosed with autism at 14.  In August, Greenhagen, along with his former boss from the Defense Department, Chief of Information Assurance Casey Hurt, and Stacy Thayer, a researcher focused on autism spectrum disorder (ASD), told attendees at the Black Hat USA 2018 conference that employees on the so-called “spectrum” can be an asset, especially in fields such as cybersecurity.

In their panel presentation, “How Can Someone with Autism Specifically Enhance the Cybersecurity Workforce?” the presenters offered their insights on how employees on the autism spectrum might meet and well exceed the capabilities of other employees.

Greenhagen, who is now a senior security researcher for McAfee's Advanced Programs Group, described his experience working in the U.S. military and intelligence communities. Like many others on the autism spectrum, he found that his concentration and attention to detail in a specific area -- in his case, link analysis in network theory -- gave him better-than-average insight into recognizing what other analysts might easily miss. “When other people see noise, I see patterns,” he said.

Greenhagen said he realized very early on that he was “able to see the problems other could not solve.” And the constantly changing nature of cybersecurity engaged his active mind and his hyper-focus. In addition to his work for the government, Greenhagen runs an autism-focused social media group with 50,000 participants.

Having strong mentors and supervisors, like Hurt, who not only understand how to work with employees on the spectrum but can support them when they have interpersonal issues with fellow employees, is critical, Greenhagen said. “If I didn’t have a good manager like Casey, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, adding that some of the best successes he has seen from people on the autism spectrum happen in security operation center jobs.

Greenhagen cautioned that once a manger gives a person on the spectrum  a task, it is “important to let [them] finish it to completion.”

Thayer, who has been researching ASD for more than a decade, pointed out that this developmental disability can manifest in unique ways in different people. “A spectrum disorder means people have the [same] diagnosis, but it will not look the same,” she said. “You have people that are high functioning, and other who cannot hold a job.”

Autism affects 1 in 59 children,  and 1 in 37 males. ASD was only officially recognized as a diagnosis 25 years ago, in 1993.

According to Thayer, only 14 percent of adults diagnosed with autism hold full-time employment. And yet, she said, “qualitative research point[s] out that when it comes to computer-related fields, people with ASD can not only hold down employment, but thrive in these jobs.”

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