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?

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A spokesman for the National Institute of Mental Health says that the agency is not aware of any government organization or academic research that tracks the incidence of AS in adults.

Where statistics come up short, anecdote is happy to take up the slack. Ask an Asperger's-aware techie if there is indeed a connection between AS and IT, and you're likely to get "affirmative, Captain." (Yes, Star Trek's Mr. Spock is often diagnosed online as having Asperger's; see "Playing the Asperger's guessing game.")

When the question is put to Ryno, he e-mails back a visual:

Aspies --> tech as fish --> water

And Bob, the database applications programmer, says, "Yes, it is a stereotype, and yes, there are a higher than average number of Aspies in high tech."

Nobody, it seems, has more to say on the subject than Temple Grandin, a fast-talking Ph.D. Aspie professor who's the closest thing Asperger's has to an elder stateswoman. Grandin made her mark designing livestock-handling facilities from the point of view of the animal; she now has a thriving second career as an Asperger's author (Thinking in Pictures, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships) and speaker.

"Is there a connection between Asperger's and IT? We wouldn't even have any computers if we didn't have Asperger's," she declares. "All these labels -- 'geek' and 'nerd' and 'mild Asperger's' -- are all getting at the same thing. ... The Asperger's brain is interested in things rather than people, and people who are interested in things have given us the computer you're working on right now."

Career opportunities, career limitations

Grandin has compiled a list of jobs and their suitability to Aspies and autistics according to their skills. No surprise, tech jobs are cited early and often. Her list of "good jobs for visual thinkers," for example, includes computer programming, drafting (including computer-aided drafting), computer troubleshooting and repair, Web page design, video game design and computer animation.

Grandin's "good jobs for nonvisual thinkers," which she further defines as "those who are good at math, music or facts," includes computer programming, engineering, inventory control and physics.

Why do Asperger's individuals gravitate to technology? "Adults with Asperger's have a social naiveté that prevents them from understanding how people relate. What draws them in is not parties and social interaction, but work that allows them to feel safe, to feel in control," explains Steve Becker, a developmental disabilities therapist at Becker & Associates, a private practice in the Seattle suburb of Des Moines, Wash., that conducts ongoing small group sessions for adults with AS, among other services.

"What's better for that than a video game or a software program?" Becker asks. "When you're designing a software program, there are rules and protocols to be followed. In life, there is no manual."

While careful to protect his clients' confidentiality, Becker confirms that he sees many adults and children of adults who work for the region's tech powerhouses -- Microsoft Corp. and The Boeing Co. -- and the hundreds of smaller companies that orbit around them.

Some of the Aspies he counsels are at the very top of their tech game: software and aerospace engineers, computer scientists, Ph.Ds. But for every research fellow with Asperger's, he says, there are a legion of fellow Aspies having a much tougher time in the middle or low ranks of the industry.

"The spectrum of success is much broader than one would expect," agrees Roger Meyer, the Portland, Ore.-based author of The Asperger Syndrome Employment Workbook who runs one of the oldest peer-led adult Asperger's groups in the country. "Adults who have grown sophisticated at masking and adaptive behaviors can either bubble along at the bottom of the market or do very well at the top."

It's that "bubbling along at the bottom" that has Becker, Meyer and other Aspie specialists concerned. Employees with Asperger's might do well for years in data entry or working in a job like insurance claims, where knowledge of ephemera is a prized work skill, only to flounder when they're promoted to a position that requires a higher degree of social interaction.

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