‘They Get Fired All the Time. And They Have No Idea Why.’
Pop culture lionizes the dazzling brilliance of money managers on the autism spectrum. Reality rarely measures up.
Three weeks after I enrolled my youngest child in a neighborhood nursery school in Brooklyn, I got the call. An administrator and my child’s lead teacher urgently wanted to meet with my husband and me.
Our daughter, it turned out, was wandering out of the classroom. She wasn’t making eye contact. She didn’t respond to her name. She couldn’t carry on a conversation with her teachers or classmates. She had poor fine motor skills. She didn’t play with toys like others did. Most alarmingly, she wasn’t socializing well — or at all — with other children. In short, it was impossible to teach her in a regular classroom setting.
We were baffled. Those observations didn’t square with the ebullient, extremely verbal child whose pediatrician had never raised any red flags about her social or emotional development. But at the school’s urging, we had her evaluated through New York City’s Department of Education. Looking for a diagnosis — something the DOE doesn’t give for preschoolers — we also sought the advice of a developmental pediatrician, who confirmed what no one else would tell us: Our daughter was on the autism spectrum.
This is how, in the winter of 2019, I was thrust headlong into the world of autism and all that it entailed: figuring out what the diagnosis meant, learning how to navigate the overwhelming bureaucracy of parenting a special-needs child, wondering anxiously what her future might be like. Statistics I uncovered were deeply disturbing — fewer than 16 percent of adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder were employed full-time, for example.
But at about the same time, something extraordinary happened. In February 2019, Bill Gross, christened the Bond King for his phenomenal multidecade winning streak as a co-founder and portfolio manager at PIMCO, revealed in an interview with Bloomberg Television that he had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
The disclosure prompted a discussion in the Institutional Investor newsroom about how many other people in finance might also fall on the spectrum, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed. The idea for a feature was born. With my personal and professional worlds converging to a degree they never had in my nearly 20-year career covering finance, I jumped at the chance to write it.
Through weeks of intensive research, a singular truth emerged. People with Asperger’s syndrome, the term still commonly used for one of the most well-known forms of autism spectrum disorder, bring serious advantages to the financial markets: extreme focus, a facility with numbers, a willingness to consider unpopular opinions, a strong sense of logic, and an intense belief in fairness and justice. But, like other autistic employees, they often feel alienated from their managers, colleagues, and clients. Sometimes they simply get fired.
There is hope. An emerging group of self-styled neurodiversity activists, many of whom proudly identify as autistic, are demanding to be accepted exactly as they are and are working toward a world that doesn’t just accommodate but embraces autistic people. And in an increasingly tight labor market, some companies, like JPMorgan Chase, are seeking to take advantage of the strengths that autistic workers bring to the table — and they’re seeing real financial benefits from doing so.
Still, overall employment numbers for autistic people remain bleak, and stereotypes about them persist in spite of research breakthroughs and increased awareness over the past few years.
In the reporting of this story, numerous analysts, money managers, traders, and institutional investors bravely shared their experiences with me: the frustrations, the benefits, and the challenges of working in one of the world’s most competitive industries as an autistic person. Here are some of their stories.
Greg is smart, to be sure. But he credits his pattern recognition ability — and the attendant windfall — to Asperger’s syndrome.
“Finance is mostly details, and just having the ability to systematize and categorize and focus on details can be a huge advantage,” he says.
For many people on the autism spectrum, including Greg, the condition also has its downsides. For those who struggle socially, just getting past the interview stage can be an extraordinary trial, to say nothing of the challenges of navigating the customs of corporate culture once they actually do get jobs.
But the condition isn’t rare. If anything, it’s become a kind of glib shorthand for describing a certain subtype of finance professional as being “on the spectrum”: brilliant, solitary math whizzes who struggle with social interactions, obsess over things, and can be a little too blunt, but who mint money thanks to their dazzling insights. (It’s even turned up in pop culture. Novelist Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success chronicles the midlife crisis of Barry Cohen, who flees his failing firm and abandons his autistic son, only to realize after a period of solitude and self-examination that his own struggles with socializing, gift for math, and singular obsession with watches point to the origin of his son’s condition.)
The archetype holds a kernel of truth — and real-life examples abound on the trading floors of bulge-bracket banks and in the halls of hallowed quant firms. One institutional investor — who is on the spectrum — speculated that, based on the number of due diligence meetings his firm has, the rate of autism spectrum disorder is almost certainly higher in finance professionals than in the general population.
Until recently, the most famous person in finance to self-identify as autistic was Michael Burry, one of the heroes of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short. Burry made hundreds of millions on his view — extremely contrarian at the time — that the housing market was about to go bust. He was one of the first not only to spot the problems in the market, but to create a way to short it.
The savvy bet cost him a few investors in the short run, but it ultimately made him very rich — and shone a bright light on Asperger’s syndrome when Burry revealed to Lewis that he had realized he had the condition shortly after his young son was diagnosed with it. The revelation spurred numerous other people to seek out their own diagnoses. One of those people turned out to be Gross, the Bond King, who said that in reading about Burry, he recognized himself.
Today autism spectrum disorder is broadly described as a developmental disorder that affects communication and behavior. One form of the condition used to be called Asperger’s syndrome, named for Hans Asperger, the clinician who is now widely credited with discovering autism, as we understand it today, in the early 20th century. But that changed with the 2013 revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which grouped autistic disorder, Asperger’s, and another condition not previously classified as autism into a new, single diagnosis called “autism spectrum disorder.”
However, the term “Asperger’s syndrome” is still used in other countries, and many people in the U.S. continue to use it to identify themselves. The cluster of traits commonly associated with Asperger’s includes an obsession with fairness, the ability to focus intensely on repetitive tasks, social awkwardness, a pathological inability to lie, a tendency to be extremely literal, and a facility for thinking logically and discounting extraneous information.
Several of those traits can come in handy when it comes to careers in investing and money management, of course.
“If you worry about looking good or fitting in, then you’re going to keep your unpopular opinions to yourself,” notes Jonathan Tepper, who worked as a trader at SAC Capital and as a proprietary trader at Bank of America before founding Variant Perception, which provides research and investment strategies to hedge funds and other asset managers. “When Variant started, I wrote a report saying the Spanish banking system was insolvent and unemployment would go up to 25 percent — and it was described as a ‘catastrophist’ report. We were attacked, but it turned out to be correct. Most people at the time were not writing about that.”
Chris Brown, who manages a $135 million multistrategy fund called Aristides Capital — and who, like Gross, discovered his condition after reading The Big Short — agrees.
“I’m utterly unable to get caught up in manias,” says Brown, an Air Force veteran and MD who refers to himself as an “aspie” in his Twitter bio. “Just being able to recognize when the herd is acting silly and not being caught up in it is definitely a big advantage. There is a certain normal human emotional response that people get very excited about a chart that’s going up and to the right, and I don’t have that.”
But as Greg and other finance professionals diagnosed with ASD explain, there are drawbacks. Some, deemed virtually unemployable because of their poor social skills, simply start their own firms, content to manage small amounts of capital or outsource the money-raising functions to more socially adept professionals. Burry, who initially trained to be a physician but balked at treating patients, opened his own shop, generating buzz and attracting capital based entirely on his phenomenal performance as a stock picker.
For Burry, who did not respond to a request for comment, the discovery that he was autistic was initially distressing. It also made sense. As Lewis writes, “It explained an awful lot about what he did for a living, and how he did it: his obsessive acquisition of hard facts, his insistence on logic, his ability to plow through reams of tedious financial statements.” As Burry told Lewis, “Only someone who has Asperger’s would read a subprime-mortgage-bond prospectus.”
Gross felt similar shock waves of recognition upon his diagnosis.
“I’m sort of proud of it, because it explains a lot about me,” he said in the Bloomberg Television interview. “All Asperger’s are not geniuses; the intelligence thing is not necessarily a big part of it. But my personal behavior, my ability to relate to people, my singular hobbies — stamp collecting, this, and this, and this — I said, hey, so maybe I do. So I did go to a psychiatrist. And at the end of the meeting I said, ‘Do you think I have Asperger’s?’ And she said, ‘Oh, yeah’.”
Gross was a larger-than-life figure in the then-moribund world of bond trading, becoming almost as well known for his unusually vivid investment letters, nasty divorce, and spats with colleagues as for his investment prowess. Of course, rainmakers like Gross can be as eccentric as they want, at least up to a point — he was eventually forced out of his job at PIMCO in a messy exit that was finally settled in 2017. He told the Financial Times earlier this year that his condition makes him a “singular, dominating, angry, quiet, introverted person,” which alienated colleagues and ultimately led to his ouster.
But relatively few autistic people manage to have such brilliant careers — or to have careers at all.
That’s in spite of the fact that more than a third of people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are college-educated, studies show. Given that an estimated one in 59 children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — making it one of the largest minority groups in America — this could potentially become a social problem of crisis proportions.
As for those people already working on Wall Street who either fit the definition but don’t have a diagnosis or who do but don’t want their employers to know — the workplace can be especially fraught.
“The range of human behavior described by the autism spectrum is exceptionally broad,” says Steve Silberman, the author of NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. “You have super-chatty people who go on and on about their favorite TV shows or whatever, and then you have people who cannot talk at all, and don’t seem to want to talk.”
Silberman’s interest in autism began around the turn of the century. As a journalist in Silicon Valley, he noticed a strange coincidence: Two of the brilliant computer scientists and Valley tech pioneers he was profiling had autistic children. When he made this observation to a friend in a local café, a teacher overheard him and told him she thought there was an “epidemic” of autism in the area.
“At that point everyone, including clinicians and researchers, thought that autism was extremely rare,” says Silberman. “I can’t overstate how pervasive the belief that autism was rare was. And so I thought to myself, ‘Why am I running into two families in Silicon Valley where there are kids in the families that have this exceptionally rare condition?’”
That led to a 2001 article for Wired magazine, “The Geek Syndrome,” in which Silberman raised the question of whether genetics was the reason that autism seemed to be surging in Silicon Valley. The story generated an enormous response from readers who saw themselves or their children in its portrayals.
While researching the article, Silberman made another striking discovery: The research of Leo Kanner (pronounced “konner”) — an Austrian psychiatrist who emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1920s and who was widely considered to be the world’s leading authority on autism from the middle of the century through the 1980s or so — conflicted dramatically with the much-less-well-known work of fellow Austrian Hans Asperger. Kanner insisted that autism was very rare, “inevitably devastating,” and caused by a lack of warmth from parents, Silberman writes in NeuroTribes.
Asperger, a pediatrician, offered an alternative view of autism — one that Silberman argues is progressive even by contemporary standards. As Silberman explained in a recent TED talk, Asperger viewed the condition as a continuum, with affected individuals displaying “an astonishing diversity of gifts and disabilities.” As Asperger explained to his colleagues in the 1930s, “Once you learn to recognize the distinctive traits of autism, you see them everywhere.” Asperger argued that autism is a lifelong — and a very common — condition that requires support from teachers, parents, and the community, and that it’s primarily genetically transmitted.
So why did Kanner’s model prevail for so long? Silberman contends in NeuroTribes that Kanner deliberately suppressed Asperger’s work in the U.S. — and in so doing set back the diagnosis and treatment of autism for most of the 20th century. Thanks to the efforts of a British psychiatrist named Lorna Wing and her colleagues to get Asperger’s groundbreaking work translated into English and disseminated on a wide scale, clinicians — and most important, government health agencies — finally began to accept Asperger’s model of autism in the 1990s, Silberman writes.
That’s about the time that autism began to gain a foothold in the national consciousness. The 1988 film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman, centered around an autistic-savant character who was strictly wedded to his routines and couldn’t live on his own but had an uncanny ability to count cards in Las Vegas.
As Silberman explains, few people knew what autism looked like before the release of the film. The movie, along with the change in criteria for autism diagnoses as well as the introduction of new diagnostic tests, created what he has called “a perfect storm of autism awareness.” The number of diagnoses increased dramatically, as Wing and her colleagues had hoped they would, because the prevalence of autism as described by Asperger was much greater than Kanner had theorized. The change also revealed that autism looks very different from one person to the next.
That’s true even of the financial professionals on the spectrum who were interviewed for this story. Variant’s Tepper, who was diagnosed as an adult, jokes that when he revealed to his friends — already convinced he was on the spectrum — that a psychologist had confirmed he had the condition, they said, “And you paid him for that?”
But in spite of his somewhat obsessive interests, tendency to memorize numbers as a child, and penchant for logic and facts, Tepper says the condition hasn’t impeded his daily functioning in the slightest. He maintains a thriving social life in London, where he lives, and argues that his ASD helps more than hinders him.
“If you look at people who score highly for all the traits that are measured, you find lots of entrepreneurs, investment managers, and others,” says Tepper, who wonders if autism spectrum disorders are overdiagnosed. “It doesn’t change how I behave or who I am, just [brings] more awareness into how I relate to others.”
Others have struggled more, particularly in childhood, but eventually figured out coping mechanisms that enabled them to work.
“I was the sort of kid who, if I was into something, I’d just go on about it,” says Aristides Capital’s Brown, who taught himself the rudiments of how to have a conversation with someone else — focusing on actively paying attention to what the other person is saying so that what he says next is in response to what was just said. “Even one weird habit I have sometimes is, on the phone, if I’m actively listening to someone, I don’t intuitively make any noise. My way of listening is to be dead silent, so I’ve had to learn to say ‘uh-huh,’ that kind of thing.”
That self-training, which autistic people refer to as “masking,” extended to body language, Brown adds: “The way I know to make eye contact is thinking about making eye contact. Just thinking about carrying my body in a way that’s not slouchy, it takes a lot of thought and being ‘on.’ Meeting with people is very much performance.”
And one that he doesn’t particularly relish.
“I’ve had people say, ‘With your performance record you should be managing a billion dollars by now,’” says Brown. He attributes his smaller portfolio partly to Aristides’ focus on an illiquid corner of the microcap space, which limits his fund’s capacity. “And part of it is that I’m just a shitty marketer. I have poor interpersonal skills; I am not good at creating FOMO,” he explains, laughing.
Brown, like others in his position, hired an adept No. 2 who runs day-to-day operations and has enlisted the help of third-party marketers for capital raising. This allows him to focus on the portfolio, where he’s most comfortable.
“I think a big reason you see a lot of ASD people working in quantitative investing is personally because you just don’t have to talk to people very much,” muses Greg, the West Coast quant. “But the type of mind-set you need to succeed in quantitative investing — in a normal person it might be perceived as paranoia, but for an ASD person it’s thinking, ‘Everybody knows exactly what I know.’ If you think that everybody knows exactly what you know, that manifests itself as pushing and pushing to get better and constantly re-creating your edge, and that is absolutely what is necessary in quant.”
For others, however, that mind-set can manifest as low self-esteem and sometimes crippling self-doubt. Bart — whose last name is being withheld — is a passionate devotee of the markets and possesses a keen intelligence. He bought his first stock in 1987 and has followed the markets ever since. But his difficulty with socializing has made it hard for him to function in society.
Like others interviewed for this story, Bart had a hard time remembering the names of his classmates as a young student. He got into in trouble at school and then drifted from one menial job to another, starting as a night watchman in a cheese factory.
Bart ultimately got a job that suited him, working as a logistics manager, again on the night shift — which served the dual purpose of limiting his contact with others and allowing him to follow global markets during quiet periods. But after a few years, he burned out and quit, falling into a paralyzing funk that he struggled for years to come out of. Roughly ten years ago a psychiatrist finally diagnosed him with ASD.
Since then Bart has carved out a peaceful existence as a day trader working from home, in a suburb of Amsterdam. He severed the few social contacts he had left, preferring to let his wife handle the socializing, which he finds excruciating.
“Life has been a bit easier, a bit more relaxing,” he says. “I was always interested in finance, especially in the stock market. It was always a hobby, but from that point on it became a bit of an obsession. But now in the last couple of years, I’m more a swing trader — if I don’t trade one day, I don’t feel unhappy; I’m okay with it. I think that comes with age.”
But Bart says the self-doubt that has plagued him all his life still affects his trading decisions.
“It’s more a handicap than a help for me,” he explains, “because my first thought is 95 percent that I’m right. After that I start doubting. You go over the pros and the cons, and that’s difficult for me.” But his lack of emotional attachment to his positions works well on the flip side. “When I have a losing position, I have no problems with closing it. I don’t care.”
For people like Bart who are diagnosed as adults, there is initially a sense of relief — at last there’s a name and an explanation for what has made them different their whole lives. But this is quickly followed by the sobering realization that autism spectrum disorder is a lifelong condition.
“People don’t really want to feel like they’re different,” says Greg. “If I have high blood pressure, I can go get a Lipitor prescription. If you’re diagnosed with Asperger’s, there’s not a pill or a patch or a cream. It’s mostly thinking about a set of strategies to approach different situations, and it’s a little bit of a cloud over your head.”
“If you look at job descriptions, people tend to put core skills in that won’t always be there” for autistic people, according to Richmal Maybank, an employer engagement manager at the National Autistic Society. “Things like ‘Must be a great team player, must have amazing communication skills’ — some of these generic must-haves that are put into job descriptions often unintentionally leave [autistic] people out and make people think, ‘Oh, maybe this isn’t right for me.’”
NeuroTribes author Silberman recalls a conversation he once had with Jose Velasco, who heads up software giant SAP’s Autism at Work program to recruit and train autistic workers. “‘The list of stuff that you’re supposed to do in every job interview is like a list of stuff that’s really hard for most autistic people to do.’” [Have] a firm handshake, good eye contact, sell yourself . . . it’s the opposite of autism, almost.”
Greg, the West Coast quant, recalls a particularly terrifying job interview with a large public pension plan. He arrived at the interview room and got settled on one side of the table. Then a large group of executives came and sat down across from him. “If it’s one person, I can devote a quarter of my brain RPMs to trying to decipher their body language or interest, but if it’s a dozen people, it’s basically having an audience watching you squirm. It’s really painful.” Even worse: After that grueling first round, the executives left — and another large group followed them in to repeat the process. “I almost said, ‘I can just go back to the airport for my flight; it’s not that important,’” Greg recalls, laughing.
For those who make it through this arduous process, keeping their jobs is another matter.
“Socially, we look for certain styles of communication and certain behaviors that aren’t always present with people on the spectrum,” explains James Mahoney, head of JPMorgan Chase’s Autism at Work program. “We are really good at hiring the gregarious extrovert. We want that strong communicator.”
That focus on the extroverted people person comes at an immense cost, Mahoney argues. “I’m absolutely confident, without any scientific metrics, that we walk away from brilliance every day because of differences in that communication style.”
Marcia Scheiner, the founder of Integrate Autism Employment Advisors, which helps companies fill jobs with young adults on the autism spectrum, and the parent of an adult son with Asperger’s syndrome, gives an example: A person on the spectrum may be sitting in a meeting, “and somebody says something and someone on the spectrum will say, ‘Well, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.’”
Integrate’s clients are companies that are specifically looking to hire autistic workers, namely young adults who are transitioning into the workforce. She recalls one candidate she placed in an actuary role at a large accounting firm. One day the young man’s manager called her in a panic. The manager had asked him if he would like to complete a task that needed doing, and the young man simply said, “No.”
Later, when asked why, the young man said he’d been working on another project on a deadline and didn’t think he should take on extra work. Scheiner explained to the manager that he needed to be more specific and directly tell the employee that he wanted him to set aside what he was currently working on and start on the new task.
“In this case, the person was disclosed [as being on the spectrum] and they were working with us, so there was the ability to deal with those issues,” she says. “But for people who go in and don’t disclose and then start doing those kinds of things that make perfect sense to them, they get fired all the time. And they have no idea why.”
Mahoney says JPMorgan Chase started its Autism at Work program as a pilot four years ago. The firm’s initial hires were in the software quality assurance department, which has a high volume of work and very clear rules about when things pass and fail — another area where autistic people, who often have a strong sense of fairness and justice, excel.
“We found the people on the spectrum with no experience had the same level of quality —and were much faster — after six months than the [neurotypical] people with five or ten years of experience,” Mahoney says. On the back of that initial success, the bank expanded hiring to another job family: workers who receive requests from a system queue. Those workers ramped up even faster than the first group. “By the third month they were at between 90 and 140 percent higher productivity and higher quality” than other employees, he said.
The program switched out of pilot mode 18 months after it started. Today the bank employs 146 individuals on the autism spectrum, with 90 percent hired through the program and the rest who already worked at the bank and disclosed their diagnoses, in some cases because of the program. (Mahoney estimates that the number of autistic people the bank employs is much higher in total.) The program has hired people for 40-plus different roles, from intern to bank teller to fraud analyst to senior manager.
Mahoney urges employers who are thinking about implementing such programs to take the leap — provided they will be hiring workers to fill slots that already exist, rather than creating jobs to fill a quota that could later be eliminated in a restructuring. He emphasizes that the program has been a runaway success for the bank, but that he and other executives had to rethink and redo how they recruited, interviewed, and hired workers through the program.
That started with the job interview process. As Maybank of the National Autistic Society notes, small measures such as furnishing questions in advance, offering more processing time, and using skills-based assessments can be effective for these candidates.
Mahoney also urges interviewers to be more literal and ask questions such as “What did you do at your previous job?” rather than “What would you do in this situation?” The latter calls for conjecture, and some people on the spectrum might not be able to answer in the abstract, he says.
For many workers on the autism spectrum, other conditions may be present, including anxiety. Mahoney recalls a candidate who had a stutter that became more pronounced with anxiety. The candidate explained this at the outset of an interview; the hiring manager opted to try the traditional route but also came up with a solution in case it didn’t work — asking questions via instant messenger. The candidate struggled, Mahoney says, until the conversation moved to internet chat.
“Once the candidate started using the chat mechanism,” Mahoney continues, “their answers were so crisp, on point, showed strong depth of thinking, visualization, and solving problems — and the manager afterward was quite emotional, conveying that if we hadn’t done this type of accommodation, we would have walked away from someone who was clearly well versed, clearly positioned to do the job well, and the manager couldn’t believe we could have missed out on that.”
Silberman takes pains to point out that companies can benefit from hiring people across the spectrum, including people who present as far more disabled than the typical Asperger’s case.
“This is one of the things that is becoming apparent with the success of programs like SAP’s Autism at Work,” he says. “What they found was that even people who were more profoundly autistic could do lots of jobs. It’s possible to develop work environments that enable even more visibly disabled people to work.”
For those who work in more typical portfolio management or analyst functions, another potential stumbling block is what happens when employees hit the mid-career stage — which is around the time they are generally asked to do more things, such as manage people or interact with clients. Some people interviewed for this story expressed concern that career advancement can be fraught for autistic people.
“A lot of organizations need to look at their practices and their culture — how can people progress without having to go through traditional routes? It’s not particularly fair if you’re only able to progress within the organization if you’re going out to after-work drinks every night and building connections,” says Maybank.
Those cultural shifts are already underway in the autism community. The neurodiversity movement boasts a growing number of autistic activists, many of whom tweet under the hashtag #actuallyautistic and are striving to ensure that the voices of autistic adults are included in conversations about policy and discrimination.
“Younger people were diagnosed when they were children, so they’ve grown up with it and are comfortable with it,” says Scheiner. “I think their peers are comfortable with it. The stigma among their peer group just doesn’t exist the way it exists for people in their late 30s and 40s and 50s.”
These activists are striving to make the world more inclusive of people like my daughter — who, I’m happy to say, is now thriving at a special-needs preschool for children with autism and other conditions. Until the movement gains widespread acceptance and more people identify publicly as autistic, however, the onus is on companies to seek out and retain autistic employees, making sure they have the tools they need to thrive in the workplace.
“The thing is to allow them to pursue their interests with vigor, and without being discouraged by being too single-minded or obsessive,” says Silberman.
The costs of not doing so could be high — and not just from a social perspective. Investors could miss out, too.
“The movement toward more quantitatively rigorous and more well-defined portfolio management practices, more quantitative investing, is definitely a huge trend,” says Greg, the West Coast quant. “It’s definitely more of a benefit toward people that are on the autism spectrum than not.”
One anonymous commenter on Wall Street Oasis, an online community for finance pros, puts it this way: “The world has enough smart and pedigreed people, but what it lacks is courage to act on your beliefs when different. I truly do think my autism is a superpower in many ways.”