The IT Industry and Asperger’s Syndrome

Succumbed to a virulent winter cold, I had my first sick day of the season. Plagued with a sore nose and throat, I was too uncomfortable to sleep and instead turned to the entertainment server to keep me company.Maurice Moss, The IT Crowd

Two seasons of The IT Crowd, and the 90s cult classic Office Space did the trick.Milton Office Space

Apart from being sinus-explodingly funny, what both shows also have in common is their portrayal of the Aspie IT Guy.

Aspies, or people suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, seem to be a common feature in tech. shows and to a lesser extent real-life IT.

Asperger’s syndrome is a mild form of autism. It predominantly affects males with typical traits being social awkwardness, above average intelligence, and narrow but intense interests with a keenness for a structured repetitive environment.

That pretty much sums up the stereotypical software developer.

It is rumoured that some of the best developers have Asperger’s Syndrome. Urban legend has it that both Bill Gates, and Richard Stallman are Aspies. More controversially, Hans Reiser, author of the killer Reiser file system, is also likely afflicted by it.

The following are the most common traits found in adults with Asperger’s:

  1. Social awkwardness. With most people two-way conversation comes naturally. We use our hands and facial expressions, and change our tone of voice to accentuate our point. We subconsciously mimic the facial expression of the people we converse with. If our conversee tells us a humorous story they will smile and we will subconsciously also smile. People suffering from Asperger’s find this difficult and are unable to read these cues. Their tone of voice, and facial expressions remain flat and unchanged, making conversation seem monotonous and awkward.

    Inability to read and use these social cues means they may also have difficulty understanding when statements are made in jest or sarcasm, and instead interpret them literally. Similarly, subtle hints may be lost on your aspie work-mate.

  2. Awkward Gait – As with facial expressions, people also tend to mimic the body language of those around them. To a large extent this affects how we walk, sit, and stand in social situations. However Asperger’s sufferers may have difficulty with this, and can appear awkward and clumsy – as if unsure where to put their limbs.
  3. Excessive verbosity. While two-way communication flows unnaturally, monologues tend to be common. A person with Asperger’s can spend lengthy periods monotonously discussing subjects that will be completely boring to anyone other than themselves. They may engage in a lengthy monologue on what they had for breakfast, or the length that they cut their lawn, without being able to guage their listener’s (lack of) interest. It was this trait that likely sealed Hans Reiser’s guilty murder conviction. Against his lawyer’s advice he proceeded to ramble for 11 days on inane details to try and convince the jury of his innocence.
  4. High intelligence
  5. Use of metaphors known only to them.
  6. Narrow intense interests. Asperger’s sufferers are extremely focussed and can often lose sight of the big picture. They may have memorized a detailed inventory of the different models of camera lenses without having any knowledge of cameras or photography. They may become obsessed with writing a plugin for their IDE, while having yet to start the bulk of the application development despite a rapidly approaching deadline.
  7. Preference for a structured and repetitive environment. Work that many may find boring, such as data entry or routine server maintenance, may appeal to someone with Asperger’s. Similarly they may find an unstructured and disruptive environment difficult.

So if the above describe your work-mate to a T, chances are that, while they are a company asset, you may find them challenging to work with.

For better communication, be polite and concise. If necessary cut out the usual social introductory sequences (e.g. “Hello, how are you?”, “How was your weekend”), and get directly to the point. Depending on the person, it is probably also a good idea to avoid humor.

Email can serve as an excellent medium for communication, as it eliminates social interaction entirely.

For more information, there is a well-researched article on Wikipedia (of course), as well as a thorough book on the subject in the Auckland City Library (which I accidentally discovered while searching for a book on Nikoli Tesla).

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