Asperger's: the IT industry's dark secret
- 22 June, 2008 22:00
"Ryno" is a 50-something ex-sysadmin, by his own account "burned out and living on disability" in rural Australia.
He loved the tech parts of being a system administrator, and he was good at them. But the interpersonal interactions that went along with the position — the hearty backslaps from random users, the impromptu meetings — were literally unbearable for Ryno.
"I can make your systems efficient and lower your downtime," he says. "I cannot make your users happy."
Bob, a database applications programmer who's been working in high tech for 26 years, has an aptitude for math and logic. And he has what he calls his "strange memory". If he can't recall the answer to a question, he can recall exactly, as if in a digital image, where he first saw the answer, down to the page and paragraph and sentence.
Bob has some behaviour quirks as well: He can become nonverbal when he's frustrated, and he interprets things literally — he doesn't read between the lines. "I am sure [my boss] finds it frustrating when I misinterpret his irony," he says, "but at least he knows it is not willful."
"Jeremy" excels at being able to see an engineering problem from the inside out, internalising it almost from the point of view of the code itself. He's great at hammering out details one on one with other intensely focused people, often the CEOs of the companies he contracts for. To protect his anonymity, he doesn't want to mention his programming subspecialty, but suffice it to say he's a very well-known go-to guy in his industry.
What Jeremy is not good at is suffering fools in the workplace or dealing with the endless bureaucracy of the modern corporation. If someone is wrong — if their idea just plain won't work — he says so, simply states the fact. That frankness causes all manner of upset in the office, he's discovered.
These IT professionals are all autistic. Bob and Ryno have Asperger's Syndrome (AS); Jeremy has high-functioning autism (HFA).
Though the terms are debated and sometimes disputed in the medical community, both refer in a general way to people who display some characteristics of autism — including unusual responses to the environment and deficits in social interaction — but not the cognitive and communicative development impairments or language delays of classic autism.
People with Asperger's, widely known as "Aspies," aren't good at reading nonverbal cues, according to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They can have difficulty forming friendships with peers, they form a strict adherence to routines and rituals, and they may exhibit repetitive and stereotyped motor movements like hand or finger flapping.Dr Tony Attwood, a world-renowned Asperger's clinician and author in Brisbane, Australia, defines Asperger's in a more human context: "The [Asperger's] person usually has a strong desire to seek knowledge, truth and perfection with a different set of priorities. ... The overriding priority may be to solve a problem rather than satisfy the social or emotional needs of others."
Problems over people? Hmm, sounds like a techie.
A paper on Asperger's from Yale University's Developmental Disabilities Clinic continues down the same path: "Idiosyncratic interests are common and may take the form of an unusual and/or highly circumscribed interest (such as in train schedules, snakes, the weather, deep-fry cookers or telegraph pole insulators)."
Or technology. When Ryno spoke with a receptionist to make an initial appointment for an evaluation with Attwood, she asked him, what is your "Big Interest?"
"She inadvertently gave me a diagnostic question I have found invaluable," he recalls. "The Big Interest is a great start to Aspie-spotting."
Ryno's Big Interest is computers and communications. He's not the only one, not by a long shot.
The Asperger's-IT connection
Autism, though first identified and labeled in 1943, is still a poorly understood neurodevelopment disorder, and nearly every aspect of its causes, manifestations, research and cure is mired in controversy. Asperger's and HFA, being hard-to-define, often undiagnosed or underdiagnosed variants on the high end of the autism spectrum, are even less quantified or understood.
Diagnoses of autism, including Asperger's, have skyrocketed in the US in recent years — the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that one in 150 8-year-old children has some form of autism.
It's not clear if the increase is because of better detection, a change in the diagnosis to include a wider range of behaviours, a true increase in case numbers, or some combination of those or other factors.
It's even less clear how many adults have Asperger's. Because Aspies are usually of average or above-average intelligence, they're often able to mask or accommodate their differences socially and in the workplace, meaning many of them make it well into middle age, or live their whole lives, without being formally diagnosed.
A spokesman for the National Institute of Mental Health says the agency is not aware of any government organisation or academic research that tracks the incidence of AS in adults.
Where statistics come up short, anecdote is happy to take up the slack. Ask an Asperger's-aware techie if there is indeed a connection between AS and IT, and you're likely to get "affirmative, Captain".
When the question is put to Ryno, he emails back a visual: "Aspies--> tech--> as fish--> water."
And Bob, the database applications programmer, says, "Yes, it is a stereotype, and yes, there are a higher than average number of Aspies in high tech."
Nobody, it seems, has more to say on the subject than Temple Grandin, a fast-talking PhD Aspie professor who's the closest thing Asperger's has to an elder stateswoman.
Grandin made her mark designing livestock-handling facilities from the point of view of the animal; she now has a thriving second career as an Asperger's author (Thinking in Pictures, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships) and speaker.
"Is there a connection between Asperger's and IT? We wouldn't even have any computers if we didn't have Asperger's," she declares. "All these labels — 'geek' and 'nerd' and 'mild Asperger's' — are all getting at the same thing. ... The Asperger's brain is interested in things rather than people, and people who are interested in things have given us the computer you're working on right now."
Career opportunities, career limitations
Grandin has compiled a list of jobs and their suitability to Aspies and autistics according to their skills. No surprise, tech jobs are cited early and often. Her list of "good jobs for visual thinkers", for example, includes computer programming, drafting (including computer-aided drafting), computer troubleshooting and repair, web page design, video game design and computer animation.
Grandin's "good jobs for nonvisual thinkers", which she further defines as "those who are good at math, music or facts," includes computer programming, engineering, inventory control and physics.
Why do Asperger's individuals gravitate to technology?
"Adults with Asperger's have a social naivety that prevents them from understanding how people relate. What draws them in is not parties and social interaction, but work that allows them to feel safe, to feel in control," explains Steve Becker, a developmental disabilities therapist at Becker & Associates, a private practice in the Seattle suburb of Des Moines, Washington, that conducts ongoing small group sessions for adults with AS, among other services.
"What's better for that than a video game or a software program?" Becker asks. "When you're designing a software program, there are rules and protocols to be followed. In life, there is no manual."
While careful to protect his clients' confidentiality, Becker confirms that he sees many adults and children of adults who work for the region's tech powerhouses — Microsoft and Boeing — and the hundreds of smaller companies that orbit around them.
Some of the Aspies he counsels are at the very top of their tech game: software and aerospace engineers, computer scientists, PhDs. But for every research fellow with Asperger's, he says, there are a legion of fellow Aspies having a much tougher time in the middle or lower ranks of the industry.
"The spectrum of success is much broader than one would expect," agrees Roger Meyer, the Oregon-based author of The Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook who runs one of the oldest peer-led adult Asperger's groups in the country. "Adults who have grown sophisticated at masking and adaptive behaviours can either bubble along at the bottom of the market or do very well at the top."
It's that "bubbling along at the bottom" that has Becker, Meyer and other Aspie specialists concerned. Employees with Asperger's might do well for years in data entry or working in a job like insurance claims, where knowledge of ephemera is a prized work skill, only to flounder when they're promoted to a position that requires a higher degree of social interaction.
"The more technical the job, the better they do. But for some, managing people in a supervisory capacity can be a problem," Becker says.
That can leave Asperger's employees stuck on the lower and less remunerative ranks of IT, sometimes in jobs that are vulnerable to outsourcing, says Meyer. For example, certain tech support situations, where sensory distractions are minimal and human interactions are reduced to a screen or a voice on the phone, are a natural fit for some Aspies.
"They're good at diagnostic work. They can get in and slosh around in the computer, use their encyclopedic knowledge of applications and work-arounds, and arrive at a solution that may be unorthodox but effective," says Meyer. As those jobs increasingly become automated and/or outsourced, Aspies' chances for employment are diminished as well.
IT's dark little secret
Becker and Meyer say they have yet to hear of a single corporation that has any kind of formal programme in place to nurture and support employees with Asperger's and HFA, aside from covering the costs of therapy through standard health care plans.
Which begs the question: If Aspies are everywhere among us, why isn't the IT industry doing more to support them or even to simply acknowledge their existence?
High-tech companies, after all, have been at the forefront of supporting workers with nearly every type of social, ethnic, physical or developmental identification. Microsoft, to take just one example, sponsors at least 20 affinity groups — for African Americans, dads, deaf and hard of hearing, visually impaired, Singaporeans, single parents, and gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgendered employees, to name a few. Just nothing for autistics.
A Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed that the company has no group or formal, separate support for Asperger's. On rare occasions, an employee with AS has requested accommodation, she says. When that happens, the employee is paired with a disability case manager to determine "reasonable accommodation" on a case-by-case basis.
Intel and Yahoo didn't respond to requests to discuss their policy toward Asperger's employees, and a Google spokesman says the company was "unable to accommodate the inquiry".
To be fair, the question of whether and how corporations should support Aspies is a thorny one to untangle.
For one thing, unlike a disability that confines an employee to a wheelchair or the language barrier that a foreigner faces, autism is something others can't see or easily understand.
"A readily visible disability is easier [for co-workers] to cognitively take on board, it seems," Ryno laments. "Ah, if only Asperger's made one turn green!"
"If you meet someone from another country," Jeremy elaborates, "people know they're from a different country and they cut them some slack."
And by their very nature, Aspies are not uniters. Microsoft's clubs and support groups are all initiated and chartered by employees. That leaves Aspies out by default: It would be highly unusual for an employee with Asperger's to voluntarily organise any type of social group, with or without other autistics.
Finally, many Aspies aren't "out" in the workplace; they haven't acknowledged their condition publicly or to more than one or two individuals.
Whether they should is a matter of contention. Ryno revealed his Asperger's at only one job (his last) and lived to regret it, even though his boss happened to be a young Aspie as well.
"It's the first time I've had an AS person as a superior," he says. "It was definitely a refreshing change not to have to explain why I didn't do eye contact, hated meetings and could not suffer fools, let alone feign gladness."
In retrospect, however, Ryno regrets having told anyone he has AS. "I'd say there were many disadvantages and few gains. The gains were short-lived, too." Specifically, systems that Ryno and his boss had designed both to help users and to minimise interruptions to their own workdays were resented and little used.
Now that Ryno is gone — he quit after being ordered by an executive to restore internet access for an employee caught downloading pornography against company policy — "the other AS employee is being forced into meetings, crowded social gatherings and many of the situations we had previously been allowed to keep to a minimum," he reports.
Jeremy has found that when he asks co-workers and bosses to accommodate his differences, it doesn't help, and in fact always seems to lead to the same end: termination.
"I don't blink. I stare. I don't understand boundary issues very well. I don't have a feeling of group membership, but other people have a very firm idea of membership in groups," he says, struggling to define the problem as precisely as possible.
As a result, where other employees are able to correct their mistakes and adjust their behaviours day to day in the office environment, Jeremy isn't. "People won't give me negative feedback. I don't know what I'm missing until it's already become a problem. I pick up on a lot of stuff, but I miss some cues. They're like little black holes, and the little black holes accumulate, and I end up being forced out. It keeps happening."
It isn't a question of work — he is sought out for his programming specialty and always busy as a contractor — but of social relationships. "I get the feeling what they'd like to do is put me in a black box, give me an assignment and get it out the other end in few weeks."
Building a better workplace?
The subtle social engineering that Jeremy and other HFA and Aspie employees struggle with may be beyond the ken of even the most proactive human resource organisations. But that doesn't mean the industry's heavy-hitters can't and shouldn't proactively fashion a more Asperger's-friendly workplace, a kind of "if you build it they will come — and work" scenario.
These changes needn't be monumental, or limited to Aspies only, specialists say. Bob, the database applications programmer, was just one of several Aspies interviewed for this story who spoke admiringly of the work/life accommodations in place at internet companies like Google.
"I would not demand it from anyone, but I do wish every employer were as accommodating as Google, supplying prepared meals and encouraging people to bring their dogs to work," he says.
Physical changes to the office environment can help as well, Grandin and others point out. Many Asperger's workers are debilitated by blinking or flickering lights; the mechanical noise of an air conditioner, photocopier or ringing telephones; or simple office chatter. A quiet corner, an office or cubicle with soundproofing or a white-noise machine may be all it takes to turn the situation around.
And more than one person spoke highly of the rumours that Microsoft offers a "buddy system" for Aspies, pairing an Asperger's employee with a neurotypical — that is, nonautistic — colleague who coaches them through the whys and wherefores of meetings and other social interactions. A Microsoft spokeswoman says there is no official information available on any buddy programmes, but says there is a good chance such initiatives are conducted on a team-by-team basis within the company.
Beyond that, Asperger's individuals hope only that they be given a chance to find a niche in the modern corporate landscape. Companies have evolved to accommodate everything from workers' physical height to their hearing ability, sexual orientation or ethno-religious status, Ryno points out.
In the same way, he says, "employers of Aspies should look at the person and the tasks, environment, and communication structure and adjust for the best viable fit."
Seattle-area psychologist Becker has seen some early signs that forward-looking high-tech companies may be doing just that. "I have seen cases where [a client] will say, 'I have Asperger's,' and receive a positive response from social workers employed by the business or the insurance companies," he reports.
On the whole, Becker is willing to cut IT some slack — for now at least. "Most corporations have never dealt with Asperger's. It's a fairly new diagnosis, even newer for adults," he points out. His general feeling is that high tech wants to support Aspies as valuable employees, it just doesn't yet know how. But that too shall change.
"In the next five to 10 years, we'll see more businesses treating autism spectrum disorders as routine," he predicts.