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programming and human factors

Software Developers and Asperger's Syndrome

When I read Wesner Moise's post on Asperger's Syndrome, I wasn't surprised. Many of the best software developers I've known share some of the traits associated with Asperger's Syndrome:

  1. Social impairments
    It is worth noting that because it is classified as a spectrum disorder, some people with Asperger syndrome are nearly normal in their ability to read and use facial expressions and other subtle forms of communication. However, this ability does not come naturally to most people with Asperger syndrome. Such people must learn social skills intellectually, delaying social development.

  2. Narrow, intense interests
    Asperger syndrome can involve an intense and obsessive level of focus on things of interest. [..] Particularly common interests are means of transport (such as trains), computers, math (particularly specific aspects, such as pi), wikipedia, and dinosaurs. Note that all of these last items are normal interests in ordinary children; the difference in Asperger children is the unusual intensity of their interest.

  3. Speech and language peculiarities
    Literal interpretation is another common but not universal hallmark of this condition. Attwood gives the example of a girl with Asperger syndrome who answered the telephone one day and was asked "Is Paul there?". Although the Paul in question was in the house, he was not in the room with her, so after looking around to ascertain this, she simply said "no" and hung up. The person on the other end had to call back and explain to her that he meant for her to find him and get him to pick up the telephone.

I often joke that you have to be a little obsessive-compulsive to be a good developer. Software development ..

  • skews heavily male
  • is fixated with order, syntax, and literal interpretation
  • allows you to deal with machines instead of people
  • requires a nearly obsessive focus

.. just like Asperger's.

This isn't a new idea; there's a classic Wired article on the disturbing connection between programming and asperger's syndrome:

It's a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics - coming to work early, leaving late, sucking down Big Gulps in their cubicles while they code for hours - are residing somewhere in Asperger's domain. Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger's syndrome "the engineers' disorder." Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov's father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers "could be diagnosed with ODD - they're odd." In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, "I think all tech people are slightly autistic."

Though no one has tried to convince the Valley's best and brightest to sign up for batteries of tests, the culture of the area has subtly evolved to meet the social needs of adults in high-functioning regions of the spectrum. In the geek warrens of engineering and R&D, social graces are beside the point. You can be as off-the-wall as you want to be, but if your code is bulletproof, no one's going to point out that you've been wearing the same shirt for two weeks. Autistic people have a hard time multitasking - particularly when one of the channels is face-to-face communication. Replacing the hubbub of the traditional office with a screen and an email address inserts a controllable interface between a programmer and the chaos of everyday life. Flattened workplace hierarchies are more comfortable for those who find it hard to read social cues. A WYSIWYG world, where respect and rewards are based strictly on merit, is an Asperger's dream.

There's a documented genetic component to this spectrum of developmental disorders, which has unfortunate implications for areas where software engineers congregate:

High tech hot spots like the Valley, and Route 128 outside of Boston, are a curious oxymoron: They're fraternal associations of loners. In these places, if you're a geek living in the high-functioning regions of the spectrum, your chances of meeting someone who shares your perseverating obsession (think Linux or Star Trek) are greatly expanded. As more women enter the IT workplace, guys who might never have had a prayer of finding a kindred spirit suddenly discover that she's hacking Perl scripts in the next cubicle.

One provocative hypothesis that might account for the rise of spectrum disorders in technically adept communities like Silicon Valley, some geneticists speculate, is an increase in assortative mating. Superficially, assortative mating is the blond gentleman who prefers blondes; the hyperverbal intellectual who meets her soul mate in the therapist's waiting room. There are additional pressures and incentives for autistic people to find companionship - if they wish to do so - with someone who is also on the spectrum. Grandin writes, "Marriages work out best when two people with autism marry or when a person marries a handicapped or eccentric spouse.... They are attracted because their intellects work on a similar wavelength."

At clinics and schools in the Valley, the observation that most parents of autistic kids are engineers and programmers who themselves display autistic behavior is not news. And it may not be news to other communities either. Last January, Microsoft became the first major US corporation to offer its employees insurance benefits to cover the cost of behavioral training for their autistic children. One Bay Area mother told me that when she was planning a move to Minnesota with her son, who has Asperger's syndrome, she asked the school district there if they could meet her son's needs. "They told me that the northwest quadrant of Rochester, where the IBMers congregate, has a large number of Asperger kids," she recalls. "It was recommended I move to that part of town."

But it's ultimately a question of degree; who decides what is functional, what is normal? Hans Asperger, the Austrian psychiatrist who first identified the condition, once wrote it seems that for success in science and art, a dash of autism is essential.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror