Software professionals are prone to classic nerdy behavior, but a few may actually be suffering from something deeper that interferes with both their work and their personal life. It may feel like they are from an alien culture and speak a different language, even though they're using the same words as everyone else. In this column, Danny R. Faught describes how this problem has affected him and how you can better integrate into the alien culture if you or someone you know is affected.
If you work in the high-tech industry, you have probably encountered many people who fit the classic profile of a "computer nerd”. For example, someone who has advanced knowledge in a few specific areas, seems socially awkward, has trouble with dating, is likely to be a loner, and can be clumsy. I fit that profile myself, but I have come to realize that the "nerd" label isn't sufficient to describe how I think and act. I have Asperger's Syndrome.
What is Asperger's Syndrome?
Asperger's Syndrome (AS) is a neurological condition that affects more men than women. Most experts believe that AS is a mild form of autism. Though it is incurable, people with AS develop coping skills to various degrees that allow them to function among the "neurotypical" population (people who aren't on the autism spectrum).
I have a diagnosis from a psychologist, but many people with AS are self-diagnosed. Like any syndrome, AS has a cluster of characteristics. Each affected person has a different mix of these characteristics and is affected to varying degrees. Here are some of the most common characteristics that I've observed in people with AS:
· Difficulty with non-verbal communication, such as looking people in the eye and conveying the intended meaning with facial expressions
· Difficulty in forming friendships
· Difficulty recognizing social cues and conventions
· Maintains a small number of intense special interests-topics they want to learn as much as possible about, which tend to shift occasionally, and can interfere with priority-setting
· Difficulty expressing emotions
· Tends to be pedantic and literal, with some difficulty understanding humor
· Difficulty adapting to change and external demands
· Hypersensitive to some kinds of sensory input, like loud sound, scratchy clothes, bright light, or certain smells and flavors
· Normal or above-average intelligence
Again, everyone with AS has a different mix of these conditions. As we get older, we develop more advanced coping skills that make some of these characteristics more difficult to notice. Still, people with AS can get so frustrated by trying to understand the behavior of the people around them that they feel like they are aliens transplanted from another planet.
For me, AS manifests most prominently in my personal relationships. Even though I'm only mildly affected, AS was a major factor in the breakup of my marriage and I sometimes have difficulty communicating with my children. I have very few close friends, though I have a large number of acquaintances. I have become fairly outgoing, which is unusual for someone with AS.
Asperger's at Work
At work, the effects can be harder to spot. Some people with AS have great difficulty acquiring and holding on to a good job-even interviewing can be a big challenge. Others like me, though, are able to do what we love, using coping skills to get past the rough spots. I like doing work that gives me a wide degree of freedom to produce creative solutions, but some people with AS prefer a highly structured work environment that gives clear rules to help them make judgments.
Ironically, my efforts to work around my difficulties with communication have given me the ability to help clients get past their own communication problems. This is because I have to consciously think about parts of the communication process that most people do unconsciously. I can often identify barriers to communication more effectively than others without AS. There are some challenges I have at work, such as identifying issues with my own communication in real-time. Sometimes an important subtlety in an interaction will dawn on me later. Though I love public speaking, there have been embarrassing occasions where my filters have failed and I said inappropriate things. I used to have a rigid approach to quality assurance, but with age I have mellowed into a much more balanced and cooperative mindset.
Many people with AS are handy with computers and are well-suited for doing software testing. Computers and testing are a few of my "special interests." I think AS helps me to have the intuition to find bugs and also gives me the laser focus needed to reproduce and isolate them with great precision. I can identify small, but important details-the bugs seem to jump off the screen and introduce themselves to me. I can quickly identify patterns of software behavior, so I can develop hypotheses about the nature of a bug. There is one fascinating company I ran across in Denmark called Specialisterne. It offers software testing services provided primarily by people on the autism spectrum, which helps to support the idea that people with AS and related conditions are well-suited for doing testing.
Should You Tell Them?
You may work with someone who shows several symptoms of AS who is struggling to be successful and frequently has had trouble communicating with people, but doesn't seem to know why he struggles so much. Should you tell him about AS? This can be a difficult decision. I have talked to a number of people who know someone who they think might have AS. They wrestle with the decision of whether to tell them. I think in most cases, someone who has AS welcomes the opportunity to learn why they have the difficulties that they do and to be able seek out other people with the same issues who can help them cope. When I realized I might have AS, I went to great lengths to seek a diagnosis (professionals familiar with AS in adults can be very difficult to find). Getting a diagnosis was actually a great relief.
Some people, however, don't welcome the news. They may not like knowing that they have an incurable disorder. Some think they are unique in their talents and idiosyncrasies and are disappointed to find that they have a syndrome like many others, even though there is a great degree of variation in symptoms among people with AS.
When the person is a coworker, there are additional complications. Many experts advise people diagnosed with AS not to tell their managers or potential employers about their condition. This is because it could limit their career options, so they may not be comfortable having work contacts know about their AS.
Here's the best advice I can offer: If you are fairly close to a coworker whom you want to tell about AS, you may choose to tactfully suggest that he explores whether learning more about it could help him succeed. Or you may find a way to inform him about AS without directly suggesting that he might have it. If you don't have a close relationship with him, it would be better to have someone who is close to him either share the information or to decide if it's best not to interfere. I would not recommend approaching your colleague's family without your colleague's knowledge. Once a coworker has been informed about AS, you should not expect to find out if he does get diagnosed, unless he is comfortable sharing that information with some of his work contacts. Whatever you choose to do, you can learn more about the issues that people with AS face at work, including verbal and nonverbal communication problems and overstimulation from sound, light, smell, etc. You can help them deal with specific issues without ever needing to give them an overall label for their difficulties.
Do We All Have Asperger's?
One of my friends with whom I was in contact as I was seeking a diagnosis remarked that practically everyone he knows in the high-tech field had some of the characteristics of AS. Surely we don't all have AS? I don’t believe so, but I do suppose it's a matter of degree. Many people have a few of the traits but otherwise are quite “normal”. It is easy for these people to discount the concerns of someone who complains about the same problems, even if the life of the person with AS can be severely disrupted by the magnitude of the issues.
I've never talked to anyone with AS who wants to be cured. While AS comes with challenges, it also comes with unique gifts and, if we didn't have AS, we wouldn't be who we are.
1) The Aspie Quiz -a popular, informal assessment tool.
2) "The Geek Syndrome"-another oft-cited resource, which includes the AQ Test.
3) Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison helped me see the characteristics of AS in myself.
4) Tony Attwood is an often-cited expert on AS.
5) Fellow tester Matt Heusser has blogged about AS.
6) "Autistic People Prove Valuable in Software Testing," written by Cliff Saran for omputerWeekly.com.