- Posted April 2, 2013 by
Salt Lake City, Utah
This iReport is part of an assignment:
The written word: Your personal essays
I hired an Aspie... now what?
Last January after a fresh snow storm my 9 year old son asked me to help him build a snowman. I told him that I would be out to help shortly. A couple minutes later he came running back yelling, “DAD, IT’S MELTING!”. That got my attention. It was sub-30 outside, so how could a snowman be melting?
I followed him as he ran down the hall to his bedroom. In the middle of his room was a 4 foot tall snowman, melting away.
While I removed the snowman and cleaned the remaining slush and mud, I asked him why he did it. He said in a very stoic and matter-of-fact-tone, “It’s cold outside.”
My son has Aspergers. And for him, building a snowman in his bedroom, because it was cold outside, is a very normal solution to a problem.
Because of my son, Aspies hold a special place in my heart. So, whenever I hear someone talk about hiring an Aspie I cringe just a little. Not that the term Aspie bothers me. In fact I like how people use it to say that someone is focused, driven and dedicated. What makes me cringe is when it comes to software developers and testers, hiring an Aspie is code to say that you’ve hired a machine.
The reason can be traced back to a number of articles like this one from ComputerWorld; “Asperger’s and IT: Dark secret or open secret?”, Where they tout the benefits from hiring an Aspie.
It’s true that there are a lot of benefits from hiring an Aspie or someone with Aspergers like behaviors. Research from Harvard Business School showed that the strengths of people with Aspergers and high-functioning autism actually make them superior at software development and testing. They have the ability to focus for extended periods of time. They have a very good memory and are highly intelligent. And their strong analytical skills makes them ideal for technology work.
But, there is a lot more to an “Aspie” then unrelenting laser-like focus, intelligence and determination. Aspies are human. They have highs and lows. They have good and bad days. And they want to be part of a team.
As a manager, you should understand how to handle the unique opportunities and challenges that face an Aspie. There are 6 things you should know when hiring an Aspie:
1. Aspies are autistic
Aspergers is a high functioning variant of autism. People with Aspergers are often exceptionally intelligent and verbally gifted but they also can be socially awkward. They can react to stress differently and at times more emotionally than normals.
Many people with Aspergers are challenged by large crowds, looking people in the face and reading common social queues. For most of us responding to social queues is second nature, so it is easy to overlook how challenging daily life can be for an Aspie.
When talking with an Aspie don’t get offended if they keep looking around at things or focus on an object in the room instead of looking directly at you. This is a coping skill that most Aspies develop over time. Remember to listen to the words that they are using and put less focus on their body language.
2. Aspies are intelligent
Most gifted children and children with Aspergers develop cognitively well ahead of their physical growth. The key difference is that Aspies lag behind emotionally. This is why so many high functioning Aspies tend to seek solitary jobs later in life.
Aspies will question authority. They will never accept no for an answer without being told the reason for it. They almost never accept a fact simply because of who it comes from. They will only accept it as fact if the logic proves out.
For this reason many inexperienced managers shy away from hiring or working with an Aspie. Don’t, you just need to be prepared to justify your decisions when it has a direct impact on an Aspie.
3. Aspie think different
Aspies will talk at length about all the small details vs. being brief, clear and to the point. The reason is simple, it is how they see the world. They hold complex mental models that include all those small interlocking details. To them overlooking the details is the same as misunderstanding the problem or the solution. To an Aspies, the mental model is like hearing an orchestra playing hundreds of instruments all at once, it’s in harmony and it just makes sense.
An Aspie will struggle to break free from those mental models. To get an Aspie to consider alternatives or accept different approaches, start by asking them to think about things in a different way. This will create a puzzle for them to solve and they will reconsider their mental model on their own terms.
It’s not uncommon that once an Aspie see (or hears) an alternative that they immediately start to incorporate those changes into their mental model. They will fill in the missing details before you are even finished talking. They are simply rewiring the mental model and experimenting with it just to see how it changes. Be patient with them. It’s an Aspie’s way of getting it.
I have seen Aspies start reprograming software in their head well before they get back to their desks and write the first line of code. Aspie testers will instantly see what is wrong with the software because it no longer fits their model.
All this “rewiring” has wonderfully positive results.
4. Aspies feel deeply
It’s easy to think that Aspies are less empathic because of how they can act. But Aspies are actually profoundly empathetic and feel much deeper than what most of us do. When people are unsure how to respond to a stressful of unfamiliar situations, we can act in strange ways. Autistics, who are feeling more deeply, will act even more strangely.
One the most challenging thing for any autistic individual to deal with is the cacophony of emotions that can be triggered by a seemingly mundane events. For example, the cancelation of a project may be a relief to most of your team, while an aspie may see it as people not appreciating their hard work or allowing them to finish the job.
Be patient. Pull them aside before hand to explain the situation ask them for their feedback and insight. It will give them a chance to rewire their mental modal in a way that they can work through it.
Along the same lines be willing to present a new project or task to a aspie to give them time to process the idea.
5. Aspies talk different
In the most simple of terms; Aspies are blunt to a fault.
Aspies are usually renowned for being direct, speaking their mind and being honest and determined and having a strong sense of social justice. Ok renowned is a bit strong. Just be aware that an Aspie is interested primarily in significant contributions to conversation; preferring to avoid ‘ritualistic small talk’ or socially trivial statements and superficial conversation.
Aspies are not trying to be rude.
6. Aspies are successful
Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Bill Gates all have Aspergers behaviors and symptoms. There is good reason that Aspergers is called The Successful Disorder.
The focus and dedication leads many Aspies to great heights. I doubt you could find an entrepreneur that doesn’t have many Aspie behaviors.
The most important take away is that with Aspergers come with challenges along with the great opportunities. Be aware of them and understand how to respond to them. If you do, you will see them as highly valued and respected members of your team.
If you are thinking about hiring someone with Aspergers I can’t say enough about what an incredibly valued member of the team that they can become. Don’t shy away because they have different mannerisms or behaviors. The reason they have those quirks is the very reason that they will benefit you and your team.