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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"The more technical the job, the better they do. But for some, managing people in a supervisory capacity can be a problem," Becker says.

That can leave Asperger's employees stuck on the lower and less remunerative ranks of IT, sometimes in jobs that are vulnerable to outsourcing, says Meyer. For example, certain tech support situations, where sensory distractions are minimal and human interactions are reduced to a screen or a voice on the phone, are a natural fit for some Aspies.

"They're good at diagnostic work. They can get in and slosh around in the computer, use their encyclopedic knowledge of applications and work-arounds, and arrive at a solution that may be unorthodox but effective," says Meyer. As those jobs increasingly become automated and/or outsourced, Aspies' chances for employment are diminished as well.

IT's dark little secret

Becker and Meyer say they have yet to hear of a single corporation that has any kind of formal program in place to nurture and support employees with Asperger's and HFA, aside from covering the costs of therapy through standard health care plans.

Which begs the question: If Aspies are everywhere among us, why isn't the IT industry doing more to support them or even to simply acknowledge their existence?

High-tech companies, after all, have been at the forefront of supporting workers with nearly every type of social, ethnic, physical or developmental identification. Microsoft, to take just one example, sponsors at least 20 affinity groups -- for African Americans, dads, deaf and hard of hearing, visually impaired, Singaporeans, single parents, and gay/lesbian/bisexual and transgendered employees, to name a few. Just nothing for autistics.

A Microsoft spokeswoman confirmed that the company has no group or formal, separate support for Asperger's. On rare occasions, an employee with AS has requested accommodation, she says. When that happens, the employee is paired with a disability case manager to determine "reasonable accommodation" on a case-by-case basis.

Intel Corp. and Yahoo Inc. didn't respond to requests to discuss their policy toward Asperger's employees, and a Google Inc. spokesman says the company was "unable to accommodate the inquiry."

To be fair, the question of whether and how corporations should support Aspies is a thorny one to untangle.

For one thing, unlike a disability that confines an employee to a wheelchair or the language barrier that a foreigner faces, autism is something others can't see or easily understand.

"A readily visible disability is easier [for co-workers] to cognitively take on board, it seems," Ryno laments. "Ah, if only Asperger's made one turn green!"

"If you meet someone from another country," Jeremy elaborates, "people know they're from a different country and they cut them some slack."

And by their very nature, Aspies are not uniters. Microsoft's clubs and support groups are all initiated and chartered by employees. That leaves Aspies out by default: It would be highly unusual for an employee with Asperger's to voluntarily organize any type of social group, with or without other autistics.

Finally, many Aspies aren't "out" in the workplace; they haven't acknowledged their condition publicly or to more than one or two individuals.

Whether they should is a matter of contention. Ryno revealed his Asperger's at only one job (his last) and lived to regret it, even though his boss happened to be a young Aspie as well.

"It's the first time I've had an AS person as a superior," he says. "It was definitely a refreshing change not to have to explain why I didn't do eye contact, hated meetings and could not suffer fools, let alone feign gladness."

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