Asperger's Oxymoron

No story we've done in the past six months has resonated more with readers than our May 5 cover story, "IT's Open Secret." The article was about the preponderance of people with varying degrees of Asperger's syndrome in the IT profession, and it sparked an insightful, if sometimes heated, discussion on our Web site.

The story, by Tracy Mayor, won acclaim outside our readership as well. Just a couple of weeks ago, it received Folio magazine's gold award for best article in a B2B publication in the technology/computing/telecom category. But while such awards are gratifying, what really gets us charged is seeing a story charge up our readers.

At this writing, the online version of the article has drawn nearly 100 comments from readers, ranging from those who identify themselves as having Asperger's or some other form of autism, to colleagues and relatives of these "Aspies," to those who had never even heard of the disorder before. The central question I found myself asking after reading the dozens of comments is this: Should Asperger's be treated, or should Aspies simply be left alone to take advantage of their problem-solving traits? On balance, is the condition a help or a hindrance in life?

I wondered much the same thing last July when I interviewed Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement. To prepare, I had read Sam Williams' 2002 biography, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. In the book, Williams wrote about Stallman's social ineptitude, intensity and hardheadedness -- qualities commonly found in Aspies.

"During a 2000 profile for the Toronto Star, Stallman described himself to an interviewer as 'borderline autistic,' a description that goes a long way toward explaining a lifelong tendency toward social and emotional isolation and the equally lifelong effort to overcome it," Williams wrote.

When I cited that excerpt from the book during the interview, Stallman said that assessment was "exaggerated."

"I wonder about it, but that's as far as it goes," he said. "Now, it's clear I do not have [Asperger's] -- I don't have most of the characteristics of that. For instance, one of those characteristics is having trouble with rhythm. I love the most complicated, fascinating rhythms." But Stallman did acknowledge that he has "a few of the characteristics" and that he "might have what some people call a 'shadow' version of it."

Referring to John J. Ratey's 1998 book, Shadow Syndromes: The Mild Forms of Major Mental Disorders That Sabotage Us, Stallman noted that "for many of the identified mental illnesses, there are a lot of people who are within the range of being normal who have slight versions of them."

"Would you say that having the shadow version has been a help or a hindrance in your life?" I asked.

"Both," Stallman responded. "It's certainly been a hindrance to me in my romantic life, but other than that, I don't think it has held me back much. At the same time, it may have given me the strength and firmness and thoughtfulness to do something important with my life."

That brings us back to the first part of my central question: Does what Stallman described constitute a condition that warrants treatment? Not all Aspies think so. As one reader who made it clear that he identifies with the syndrome put it, "Why don't you just leave us alone and let us do what we do best -- create the world as a better place?"

For me, the answer lies in the wistfulness of the first part of Stallman's response, about his romantic life. And it lies equally in the negative tone of many of the Aspie readers who commented on the article.

A fundamental prerequisite to doing something important with your life and making the world a better place is forming bonds and building relationships with other people. Making the world a better place alone is an oxymoron, because no place of solitude is a better place for human beings.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon