Reach out to hidden talents

We can learn a lot by opening our doors to autistic people, says Mike Dempsey, and our move may help integrate a potentially isolated group

It is a well-known fact that there is a high percentage of dyslexics sheltering in the welcoming waters of the creative industry. But it is far more difficult for those afflicted with autism to find a place in the lagoon.

I have arrived at the smart, bustling offices of futures and hedge-fund specialist Winton Capital Management to meet a very special member of the staff. Geoffrey March is a 30- year-old man on a six-month placement with the firm and he is autistic.

The company occasionally takes on gifted individuals from the autistic community and has found in the past that their prowess in the mathematical and grammatical areas has been extremely beneficial.

Robin Edgar, communications director at Winton, says the company had one such individual who had an astonishing ability in proofreading – ‘better than anyone I’d ever come across,’ he says. But March’s passion is drawing and he has been given the task of recording the buildings of Cambridge, where the firm has an outpost (drawing of King’s College pictured below).

I’m visiting Winton at the invitation of Andy Graham of The National Autistic Society to look through March’s portfolio of work. The NAS, he explains, seeks to find employment for gifted autistic sufferers. This is a difficult task and one which the society appears to handle with great sensitivity.

March’s love is drawing architecture and the sheer detail and density of his work immediately struck me. As I leafed through his images, he bombarded me with a stream of questions. He asked, ‘What do you think of my earlier drawings?’ ‘Do you like the detail? What do you think of
Herzog & de Meuron?’, and so on. It was clear that he loves being in an environment where he feels secure, and, most importantly, where he can contribute in a normal working environment.

March has not only been fortunate enough to be given a placement at Winton, he also experienced an earlier one with London product design consultancy Seymour Powell. While at Seymour Powell March was given the task of drawing bottle shapes and anything else that took his fancy – which, of course, included the consultancy’s courtyard building in west London.

I asked Tanja Langger of Seymour Powell what the consultancy – and what other members of staff – had gained from having March work alongside them. ‘It gave us all a far greater awareness of autism,’ she said. ‘But it also provided us with a completely different take on the world,
which we all found beneficial. ‘She goes so far as to advocate that ‘all consultancies should try to embrace autism in this way, if only for one week’.

Autism is a life-long brain disorder and there is no known cure. It affects more than half a million people in Britain, with boys being four times more likely to develop the condition than girls. For many the world can be a confusing and lonely place. They are often bullied at school and normal social interactivity is an alien concept. Many will never work. But there are sufferers with highly developed creative sensibilities – artists, musicians and writers. March falls into this category. He has Asperger’s syndrome, one of the many conditions on the autistic spectrum.

This spectrum is made up of a range of disabilities. March’s drawing ability is exceptional and obsessive – like that of Britain’s most celebrated
autistic suffer, Stephen Wiltshire, who has earned an international reputation for his astonishing ability to draw whole cityscapes after a brief
helicopter flight. March has a similar gift and will spend up to two weeks on each A4 black ink drawing.

March is one of the lucky ones. Gaining first-hand experience in a live working environment is a rarity, and it makes a tremendous difference to the individual and their sense of place in the world.

It would be a wonderful thing if our creative industry could embrace members of the autistic community more fully – even for short work experience placements – to help integrate and create a greater understanding of this seemingly mysterious world.

Mike Dempsey is founder of Studio Dempsey

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