A fried of mine recently sent me this article, with a subject like something like “An Aspie comes out of the closet.”
The reason? I’m one of a small community of software testers who are diagnosed (or self-diagnosed) with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autistic-spectrum disorder.
The way I explain Asperger’s is this: My brain chemistry is a little different than most people. Growing up, I had problems dealing with people: They lied. They said things they did not mean; what kind of shoes you wore mattered more than any of your ideas. Far from a meritocracy, it really mattered in school how far you could kick a ball, how good you looked, and how quickly you could respond to a put-down. In short, I was a nerd.
As such, I turned to computers for escape. Computers made sense. If the computer did something wrong, it was because I screwed up the programming.
I earned a degree in Mathematics, which is the most objective field I know of – answers are right or wrong. Period. Even if you don’t bathe for a week and have no social skills, if you’re smart, you can do well in Math. (1)
Eventually, later in life, I realized that, well, people matter more than things. Having a room full of toys and no one to share them with is no fun. To be successful in any relationship, including the workplace, you need to understand people. So I got into people, psychology, and relationships. I forced myself to learn.
I used to feel bad about this — right up until I read the very same story in a book by Jerry Weinberg called Quality Software Management. And I do mean the very same story.
It’s a true story for both of us — and, I suspect, for my friend who sent me the link that started all this. This means I have problems reading people, understanding social clues, and responding quickly with words – in the moment. (Such as: Off the cuff jokes) Ironically, that’s part of why I got into public speaking — in public speaking, you pick your words in advance, and you can practice them over and over. Ditto for writing.
So I wasn’t surprised in 2001 when I read a description of Asperger’s in Wired Magazine and said “that’s me.” Yes, there is more to the diagnosis than that, but I’d prefer to keep that part private.
The classic description of an Aspie is a “little professor” – someone who is seriously, seriously involved in particular subject area and (sometimes) has problems relating outside of that subject area. As a young person, I craved a structured envrionment that made sense; one of the reasons I loved playing cadet was that I knew who to salute and how to march and how to wear a uniform – the rules were explicit and written.
And those who knew me as a cadet also new that I … needed a little help socially.
In the 1940’s, someone with Asperger’s might they collect stamps, or coins, or have a model train collection, or maybe knew every single baseball stat for a particular team. Today, Aspie’s are more likely to write code, test software, play with CSS style sheets or design aircraft.
The end result of all this is that I’m not typical. Duh. No one is really average in every way. If I had my choice, at the beginning of my life, to be an empty suit with great social skills or someone who was able to generalize, abstract, create, and do wonderful things … I don’t think It’d be a tough choice.
For centuries, it has been ok for artists to be a little bit weird – In fact, I remember one graphic designer who used to wear flip-flops to work (that he promptly took off) combined with some sort of odd faux-prisoner outfit.
That little spark of oddity about the creative person on a bad day is the same thing we credit as the spark of genius on a good one. News Flash: Techie folks can be creative too.
What I’m trying to say here is – I may have Asperger’s Syndrome, or it may be what they called “Disgraphia” when I was in Grade School – or it may be something else.
I don’t believe it’s the kind of thing to be hidden, but I’ve never made a post on it.
And when I got that email, well, the time seem right.
(1) Yes, I bathed. Gosh, it’s an expression!