Working with Autism in Cyber Security
Story and photo by Erasmo Guerra

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Working with Autism in Cyber Security

In February of this year, at the age of 34, Mike King was diagnosed with autism. He'd seen psychologists before, like, that time in grad school when he was prescribed anti-depressants. But it wasn’t until he was seeing an MFT (a marriage and family therapist), while going through a divorce, that he was referred to a specialist who focused on autism assessments. 

"It's nobody's fault that I wasn't diagnosed..." he said, and then with a good-natured laugh adds, “Well, there is, starting with when I went to get treatment in adulthood. How can you have a pervasive developmental disorder and nobody tells you?"

Born in Fresno, and raised in Washington state as well as Germany and Italy (his father was a former military man who then worked in the Navy as a civilian social worker), King, who now lives in San Jose, says that getting the diagnosis made sense.

On a recent lunchtime walk, King recalled childhood habits such as lining up all of his Matchbox cars on the dining room table, which he now sees in hindsight as tell-tale traits on the autism spectrum.

King says that the diagnosis felt more like being told "I was gifted instead of pathological." And, as an adult with an existing career at White Hat Security, a cyber security firm based in Santa Clara, he realized just how suited he was in his current professional role in “Technical Escalations,” which he describes simply as trouble-shooting and tech support. 

According to Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism, a national association of organizations working to improve the lives of adults with autism, 90 percent of adults with autism are unemployed or underemployed. King, however, says his perseverative behavior, typical of those with autism, has been a professional asset.

"When something is frustrating, it's normal to give up or change strategies when you get stuck in a rut," King says. "On the other hand, persistence pays off. I figure something out because I have more frustration tolerance. I just keep trying."

He also points out that the characteristic symptoms of anxiety and catastrophizing are "job skills in computer science” where you’re tasked to consider all the possible things that could go wrong. King said, "A non-anxious person wouldn't legitimately know how to do that because they’re not anxious enough to think that way. In this industry, they actually call it having a ‘security mindset.’”

He’s been at White Hat for six years now and though he didn’t know it at the time he started, working there turned out to be a best possible scenario. For Autism Awareness Month this past April, King wrote a post on the company blog about his recent diagnosis and how his talents make him well-suited for a career in the cyber security field.

Outside of work, King, a lifelong skateboarder, says he’s looking to get involved with the A.Skate Foundation, a non-profit that holds autism-friendly skateboarding clinics for children with autism.

King also says that the single most important thing he did after getting diagnosed was read the book Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, a collection of essays by and for Autistic people. “A lot of what you read about autism is very pejorative,” he said. He felt encouraged reading a book “from autistic people who do not say ‘I have this terrible neurological problem,’ but rather ‘No, it’s fine. people should just be nicer.’”