Discussion of the rise in diagnosed autism is a controversial topic, and I applaud one company that is sidestepping the entire 'why' and 'who is at fault' issue and tackling it like good capitalists. MSNBC writes about Aspiritech's program for training autistics in comp sci -- specifically the area of software testing, bug discovery, and data accuracy.  They write:
"Autism seen as asset, not liability, in some jobs. A new movement helps hone unique traits of disorder into valuable skills [...] now some revolutionary companies see autism as something else: a resource."
This is progressive stuff.  They seem to be focusing primarily on people with Asperger Syndrome. Asperger Syndrome is often called a form of high-functioning autism, and Dr. Asperger termed his original child patients "little professors" because of their outlook.  There are many fields where people with Asperger Syndrome can not just 'function' (blah) but excel.  Dan Shiovitz of Marchex in the same article notes:
While traits of "detail focus, willingness to repeat tasks and technical aptitude are ones we look for in testers, testing has a lot of creative work," he notes. Testers need to be able to figure out possible solutions to problems and be agile enough to change plans at the last minute or deal with sudden new requirements.
The best definition I can provide of being an Aspie (someone with Aspergers) is that issues like social interaction are harder to learn intuitively, while issues that other people find hard (memorization, categorization and morphology, and detail-oriented work) come easily.  Most people find physics hard and cocktail parties easy; Aspies have the reverse.

There are also issues dealing with change, preference for repetition over novelty, and a wide variety of co-morbid conditions.  For a good understanding of the autism spectrum, you can visit WrongPlanet, bearing in mind the wide variety that the spectrum covers and the truism "if you've met one Aspie, you've met one Aspie."

Mark Zimmerman, in an essay on autism, has a neat analogy on autism versus neurotypical (mainstream) thinking.  He compares neurotypical brains to GPUs, the parallel computer design that graphics cards use to quickly render complex scenes.  Autism is equated to CPUs, the powerful single-task chips that power computers.  He writes:
A neurotypical or 'normal' brain is incredibly parallel, much like yon super-powered GPU's. This parallelism is what allows the average person to walk, chew gum, carry on a conversation, breathe, and at the same time remember that they left the front door unlocked. Scans of autistic brains, however, show markedly decreased inter-connectivity (and increased inner-connectivity) between the many regions of the brain [Citation 1 and 2].  Therefore, it seems that a brain affected by an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may, in some aspects, resemble the far more serially designed CPU.

One of the pluses of autism, he suggestions, is "someone with ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] may be able to capture many more minor details of a single input (be it visual art, a complex symphony, etc.) than the average person. The focus on depth rather than breadth in a subject of study is a major characteristic of HFA [High Functioning Autism].

decomposing a problemParallel decomposition of a solar image

Now, just to head off an "I'm soooo Aspie too" stampede at the pass, note that being a programmer or finding social interaction difficult doesn't mean you're autistic.  As /. pundit Seumas writes:

Ever since that report came out a few years ago, it has been "trendy" to walk around proclaiming "I'm a geek and have some weird OCD traits, so I totally have aspergers!" I'm sure it is sometimes legitimate and meaningful, but for the most part I suspect it is the geek version of a guy going around telling people how edgy and brooding and complex he is.
So to recap: being on the autism spectrum involves a different way of seeing the world, which may as analogous to the computational concepts of serial and parallel processing, and this in turn means high-functioning (basically, being able to operate in society) autistics may have highly marketable skills as a result of their way of thinking.

From the MSNBC article, [Professor] Austin notes we need to recognize special abilities in people, realize that these may come with challenges to working in a traditional workplace, and find a way to minimize disabilities and take advantage of differences.

Now, some may have read my initial comment about capitalistic profiteering on Aspies as negative, and that is a bias that needs to be removed.  The real mental shift is to escape preconceptions, not add to them.  We're not saying, if you're an Aspie, you must be an engineer.  We're saying, hey, figure out what you like and can do well, and then get a job that pays you a lot to do that.

Diagnosed or not, that's good advice for all of us.

Alex, the Daytime Astronomer

Tues and Fri here, via RSS feed, and twitter @skyday
Read about my own private space venture in The Satellite Diaries