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'My Coding Just Flies'

For the autistic, the binary world of computing can be a place to excel

By Gary Anthes
April 14, 1997 12:00 PM ET

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.

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