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Spy agency utilizes autistic analysts' unique skills

Autistic analysts help U.S. spy agency
Autistic adults hyperfocus to help analyze big data for a U.S. spy agency 04:04

Martinsburg, West Virginia —  As the war in Ukraine unfolds, intelligence officials rely on satellite images to map the movements of Russian forces and on analysts in a field where seeing the world differently has its advantages. 

"It really feels like, for the first time, I'm getting to use the strengths that I have," said Morgan McCardell, a geospatial analyst at the U.S. government's mapping agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. "I'm pretty good at finding patterns." 

Zeroing in on tiny details, like a Russian military base near Alaska, McCardell sees the big picture in big data sets. 

"I'm pretty good at finding patterns," she told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge. 

In school, McCardell struggled for years, not quite fitting in, before landing a position so secret she can't discuss her portfolio. McCardell's mother saw her potential early on.

"She could read the billboards backwards," Debra Young told Herridge. "She would do it perfectly." 

But it wasn't until McCardell's 10-year-old son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with autism that she began to notice her differences. 

"My mom, she at first was like, 'Well, your son can't have autism. He's just like you,'" McCardell said. 

Young said she was surprised to find out her daughter was also autistic "because she's so high-functioning." 

Childhood autism diagnoses have more than doubled since 2000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of 25 year olds with autism have never held a paying job, according to Autism Speaks. Now, more families are reaching out to the intelligence community to learn more. 

Without good options to support her son, McCardell joined a year-old pilot program at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, also known as the NGA. She said the job has "changed everything" about her life. 

"I mean, I was on disability for almost 10 years," she said. 

At the NGA, McCardell's difference actually gives her an edge. 

"Sometimes I can do what it would take somebody a week to do in a couple of hours," she said. "That's the advantage to being able to hyper-focus." 

It's a new kind of insight that the agency's deputy director calls "neurodiversity." 

"This is really broadening that perspective, digging into how can individuals bring a talent and ability that is different than others," Tonya Wilkerson told Herridge. 

McCardell said she now feels like she can achieve anything. 

"It's a lot like finding where I fit in, finally. I was looking for an outlet, and it found me," she said. "Really the sky's the limit now. I don't feel like there's anything holding me back." 

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