Software professionals are prone to classic nerdy behavior, but a few of them may be suffering from something deeper that interferes with both their work and their personal life. It may feel like they are from an alien culture and speak a different language, even though they're using the same words as everyone else. In this column, Danny R. Faught describes how this problem has affected him and how you can better integrate into the alien culture if you or someone you know is affected.
If you work in the high-tech industry, you have probably encountered many people who fit the classic profile of a "computer nerd"-for example, advanced knowledge in a few specific areas, socially awkward, having trouble with dating, likely to be a loner, and clumsy. I fit that profile myself. But I have come to realize that the "nerd" label isn't sufficient to describe how I think and act. I have Asperger's syndrome.
What is Asperger's?
Asperger's syndrome (AS) is a neurological condition that affects more men than women. Most experts believe that AS is a mild form of autism. Though it is incurable, people with AS develop coping skills to various degrees that allow them to function among the "neurotypical" population (people who aren't on the autism spectrum).
I have a diagnosis from a psychologist, but many people with AS are self-diagnosed. Like any syndrome, AS has a cluster of characteristics, and each affected person has a different mix of these characteristics and is affected to different degrees. Here are some of the most common characteristics that I've observed in people with AS:
- Difficulty with non-verbal communication, such as looking people in the eye, and conveying the intended meaning with facial expressions
- Difficulty in forming friendships
- Difficulty recognizing social cues and conventions
- Maintains a small number of intense special interests-topics they want to learn as much as possible about, which tend to shift occasionally, and can interfere with priority-setting
- Difficulty expressing emotions
- Tending to be pedantic and literal, with some difficulty understanding humor
- Difficulty adapting to change and external demands
- Hypersensitive to some kinds of sensory input, like loud sound, scratchy clothes, bright light, or certain smells and flavors
- Normal or above-average intelligence
Again, everyone with AS has a different mix of these conditions. And as we get older, we develop more advanced coping skills that make some of these characteristics more difficult to notice. Still, people with AS can get so frustrated trying to understand the behavior of the people around them that they feel like they are aliens transplanted from another planet.
For me, AS manifests most prominently in my personal relationships. Even though I'm only mildly affected, AS was a major factor in the breakup of my marriage, and I sometimes have difficulty communicating with my children. I have very few close friends, though I have a large number of acquaintances. I have become fairly outgoing, which is unusual for someone with AS.
Asperger's at Work
At work, the effects are harder to spot, at least with me. Some people with AS have great difficulty acquiring and holding on to a good job-even interviewing can be a big challenge. But others, like me, are able to do what we love, using coping skills to get past the rough spots. I like doing work that gives me a wide degree of freedom to produce creative solutions. But some people with AS prefer a highly structured work environment that gives them clear rules to help them make judgments.
Ironically, my efforts to work around my difficulties with communication have given me the ability to help clients get past their own communication problems. This is because I have to consciously think about parts of the communication process that most people do unconsciously. So, I can often identify barriers to communication more effectively.
There are some challenges I have at work, such as identifying issues with my own communication in real-time. Sometimes an important subtlety in an interaction will dawn on me later. Though I love public speaking, there have been embarrassing occasions where my filters have failed and I said