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

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?

Editor's note: This story, and the underlying topic, was the focus of a Here and Now show on NPR on June 12. (Audio available after 3:15 p.m EDT.) "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 behavior 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, internalizing 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), sometimes referred to as Asperger's Disorder; 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 (DSM-IV-TR). 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 (e.g., 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 U.S. in recent years -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that 1 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 behaviors, 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.

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