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Asperger's and IT: Dark secret or open secret?

April 2, 2008 06:00 AM ET

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 minimize 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 behaviors 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 organizations. 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.

I get the feeling they'd like to put me in a black box, give me an assignment and get it out the other end in few weeks."
Jeremy

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 rumors 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 that there is no official information available on any buddy programs but that 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."

I can make your systems efficient and lower your downtime. I cannot make your users happy."
Ryno

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.

Related Stories

  • 'My Coding Just Flies' -- For the autistic, the binary world of computing can be a place to excel.
  • The Invisible Workforce -- Despite a critical shortage of skilled IT workers, those with mental or intellectual disabilities remain largely invisible to employers.
  • Asperger's Oxymoron -- Asperger's Syndrome has been a part of IT for as long as there's been IT. So why aren't we doing better by the Aspies among us?

Tracy Mayor is a Computerworld contributing editor.

Read more about Management in Computerworld's Management Topic Center.



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