Computer programmer Sara R. S. Miller can detect flaws in software almost at a glance by spotting irregularities in coding patterns. She can help clients with programs she hasn't seen in years by displaying a "printout" of the source code in her mind.
But Miller, president of Nova Systems, Inc. in Milwaukee, can be stymied by the most mundane decision if she hasn't encountered it before and "programmed" her brain with an appropriate response. And everyday experiences such as traffic jams can send her into panics so intense she likens them to running a 4-minute mile.
Miller, 42, is autistic. She has overcome autism's incredible mental challenges and found employment in information systems work.
Indeed, Miller and many other autistics have turned their special ways of thinking mighty memories, vivid visualization and potent powers of concentration into vocational assets.
"I have a very limited, black-and-white interpretation of the world," Miller says. "And in computer programming, you either have the bit on or off; there are no half bits."
But although many autistics share Miller's mental assets, employers' ignorance of autism and autistics' poor interviewing and social skills often keep them out of the computer-related jobs at which they might excel.
Autism is a complex neurological disorder often marked by the inabilities to form emotional attachments and communicate. Poorly understood, it may stem from immature development of certain parts of the brain combined with hyperdevelopment in other regions of the brain, and possibly from abnormal brain chemistry. About 80% of the 400,000 autistic people in the U.S. are mentally retarded, but some have IQs in the genius range.
"Autism involves splinter skills," says Joel Smith, executive director of the Autism Services Association in Wellesley, Mass. "In mental retardation, development is all at the same low level. But with autism, you get some skills that are very, very high and some that are low."
Autism can't be cured, but its symptoms can be treated to varying degrees. Autistics often are so disabled they spend their lives in institutions, with a few, such as Dustin Hoffman's Raymond Babbitt character in the movie Rain Man, combining extraordinary mental gifts with debilitating defects.
But many of the so-called "high functioning" autistics are able to hold jobs, and computer use is an activity for which they often feel a keen affinity.
Autism comes in many degrees and variations, but autistics commonly have poor social skills and shun personal contacts. They seek out solitary activities such as computer use and the arts. Several autistics approached for this story agreed to be interviewed only by electronic mail.
"There is something about computers that is very autism-friendly," says Ami Klin, assistant professor of child psychology at the Yale Child Development Center at Yale University Medical School. "Computers are very rigid, and so are the people we work with."
"One of my clients once had a very nice insight," Klin adds. "He described himself as a computer simulation of a human being. He tried to decode the social world in a way that a computer would try to make sense of it."
Temple Grandin, the autistic "Anthropologist on Mars" in Dr. Oliver Sacks' nonfiction book by that name, uses rich computer metaphors to describe her thinking. "All of my memories are stored as images," she says. "I can go and look at these pictures like Web pages on the Internet."
That is far from a handicap in Grandin's work. An assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University, Grandin is recognized as a world expert in animal psychology and the design of humane facilities for cattle handling and slaughter.
She perfects her equipment by simulating its use in her brain, she says. "I can run the equipment in my head the way you would on a 3-D graphics workstation," Grandin says. "I used to think everybody could do that."
Grandin lectures at autism conferences, where she often meets autistic programmers. "They tell me, 'I don't do it sequentially. I visualize the whole program tree, and then I just type the code in on each branch,"' she says.
"When I do my coding, it just flies because I can keep so much in my brain at once," Miller says. "I can get stuff done in five or six hours that it would take others two days to do."
As with Grandin, Miller's thinking is intensely visual. Her response to any situation is driven by memories of earlier experiences encoded as images, not words.
"It's like I'm always running a video camera. What I have to do is create memories from visuals," she says. "I can't think myself out of a brown paper bag if I haven't seen something before."
Miller's panics come when she faces situations for which she has no stored image and associated behavior logic. She explains: "To see a new customer on my own would make me freeze. It's this overwhelming fear that a lion, tiger or bear is going to jump out at me. So my business partner and I go for the first time together.
"On the next call, I can go by myself because I've built a visual memory of where all the parts and pieces are, and I know where to look for the lions, tigers and bears."
Autistic people such as Grandin and Miller have used their superior intelligence, a variety of mentors and sheer hard work to overcome their mental handicaps.
But many autistics aren't so fortunate. In fact, estimates of the number of unemployed or underemployed autistic adults are as high as 85%.
David Spicer, for example, lost his job after 20 years as a programmer and is now on long-term disability for "anxiety-related issues."
Spicer, 49, says he is "of relatively high intelligence" and that his autism brings with it the creativity and intense focus so useful in programming. But he concedes that his performance on the job was "very uneven."
Like many autistics, Spicer often misunderstands implicit statements, and he tends to "shut down under stress" rather than communicate what is wrong.
"Others' expectations were both mysterious and frightening to me," he says.
"I get no respect," says autistic computer graphics artist Gavin Simpson, who runs a World Wide Web site devoted to autism at amug.org/a203. "That is Rodney Dangerfield's line, but it is reality for most autistics. We are not like you, never can be. Nor do we want to be. However, we believe that we are entitled to respect and a fair shot for just being human."
Simpson and other autistic computer enthusiasts say computers and the Internet can help them get that fair shot at employment and a sense of worth and well-being.
"I've been obsessed with computers since I was 11," says Martijn Dekker, a 23-year-old autistic man in Paterswolde, Netherlands. Described by a friend as a "computer savant," Dekker runs an Internet support group for autistics at www.inlv.demon.nl.
"Groups such as mine seem to do away with the myth that autistics do not want to make contact with other humans," Dekker says. "Given the means that work for us a computer, an Internet connection and a small virtual community of neurologically similar souls we are able to form very deep and meaningful contacts."P
Autism and the employer
Successful autistic people often point to one or more mentors who taught them how to meet the demands of the workplace.
One such mentoring organization is the Princeton Child Development Institute (PCDI) in Princeton, N.J. The institute tries to get autistic children into its program by age 3. Some are later released to public schools; some remain until they are 21 and PCDI has found them jobs.
Gregory S. MacDuff, director of adult and community living programs at the institute, spends much of his time trying to convince employers that autistic people not only can contribute but also can be superior performers. "The biggest problem is they've had bad experiences hiring people with disabilities," he says.
David Spicer, an autistic programmer laid off from his job after 20 years, offers this advice to employers of autistics: "The best environment would be a stable one. Work would be broken into subtasks with clearly stated specifications and expectations."
"You must give an autistic person projects with well-defined goals," says Temple Grandin, an autistic professor at Colorado State University. "It can be a nearly impossible programming task, and he will just sit there and do it. And when he's done, you reward him with a new computer or more money, but you don't promote him into management. He simply cannot handle it."
The job interview is no snap, either, says Mark F. Romoser, an autistic computer consultant based in New York. "The interview process is designed to screen out those who don't fit in to the corporate culture. So when I come in, I set off every warning flag the interviewer's got."
Romoser, now 32, was diagnosed autistic at age 4. A doctor "solemnly told my mother to put me in an institution, forget about me," he says.
His mother didn't, and Romoser eventually graduated cum laude in psychology and computer science from Yale University. He recently installed a multi-media work center at the Association in Manhattan for Autistic Children.
Peter Levy, an autistic programming veteran of 27 years and co-founder of Accent Technologies LLC in Wichita, Kan., shares a trait common to autistics: striking candor about his strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, he says, "I can find software problems so fast it can make folks uneasy."
But, he adds, "I'm almost completely asocial, can't read facial expressions or body language or social nuances well and probably don't use them well either. I have no particular relationship with any of my co-workers and am definitely not team-oriented."
But given the right environment, autistic employees will deliver, says autistic computer graphics specialist Gavin Simpson.
Eric Heath, a tutor at Arizona State University, offers this assessment of Simpson's ability: "Gavin's computer skills are unparalleled when it comes to graphics programs. He develops and implements his own techniques... He does not seem limited by the tried-and-true methods, only his own imagination."
A brilliant but troubled autistic programmer agreed to an e-mail interview.
The programmer, a college student, says she mastered Basic at age 6 and recently learned Hypertext Markup Language in two afternoons. She learns new computer languages by examining an application's source code and "just remembering it and using it later."
"A lot of time, I find myself thinking not in English or Spanish but in some computer language," she says.
After two exchanges of messages, the programmer broke off communication with Computerworld. At about the same time, she published this poem on an Internet autism support group bulletin board:
I hate me
i hate my mouth
i hate my tongue
i hate my teeth
i hate my hands
i hate my fingers
i hate my ears
i hate my eyes
i hate my skin
i hate this body
that stands between
me and the world
i hate this mind
that stands between
me and the world
i want to burn away this body
destroy this mind
and envelop nothingness
the only place where I
is where there is peace.