Coders from Another Planet

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Autism and Software Engineering
  • Coders from Another Planet
Ok, so I start at the big box and…

The five of us sat around a table in a cozy little conference room in the Provo office that housed the marketing startup that had provided my transition from campus jobs to the professional software development world. Shaun, the lead developer, handed out copies of the data model he had meticulously worked into a schematic. It provided all of the details, all of the abstracted connections between the database tables that drove our core application. And he explained it in articulate, straightforward, yet self-deprecating terms, as if it was probably a perfectly fine model, but he didn’t know everything there was to know about this stuff.

I took a copy as the others discussed the ins and outs of the model. It was a diagram, similar to a UML diagram, with a web of connections. And I sat quietly and acted like I was listening, an act I had honed from years of practice. I relied on the appearance of quiet competence, as I often had, because in spite of a near-savant rote memory, a vast vocabulary, and an easy familiarity with computers from a lifetime of tinkering with them, I was once again completely lost.

This wasn’t because the diagram was obscure or esoteric, and it wasn’t because the words being exchanged were somehow unintelligible. In fact, I could understand every word clearly and even noticed if someone had an odd mispronunciation. But there is a vast difference between understanding all the words someone is saying and understanding the meaning of the words together. I was swimming in a sea of words, written and spoken, and giving my most valiant effort to look like I understood the conversation. If I could just survive the meeting, we’d get back to coding, and I wouldn’t have to bluff anymore for another week.

While it would be easy and logical to blame any of a variety of personal problems as the likely cause of difficulties like what I’ve described, the easiest explanation for the person dealing with them may be “I simply can’t do this job.” One day I read about something psychologists call “inferiority complex”, and I realized that I had a major one when it came to intelligence and professional competence. In spite of an exceedingly high IQ, obvious technical aptitudes, blah blah blah, I found it difficult to simply keep a job for longer than a year. I was so detail-oriented that I would totally lose sight of the overall scheme in favor of its components, yet I could miss details that were obvious once pointed out to me.

That’s a lot of trains.

In recent years, psychologists specializing in autism research and treatment have found that the challenges associated with autism affect far more people, including adults, than previously thought. I’ll skip the statistics, because they’re repeated often enough that you’ll soon read them if you haven’t already. What’s interesting in my profession related to this is that among clinically diagnosed autistic individuals, computers make for a prevalent source of preoccupation. Yes, there are the old train schedule stereotypes and so forth, but computers may be an even more common subject of personal interest. It’s no surprise, then, that social deficits and other odd quirks are exceedingly common among software professionals.

The flip-side of that is something I’ve already hinted at, namely getting and keeping jobs. In the online support groups my wife frequents for wives and partners of autistic people, “he can never keep a job” is an all-too-common complaint. And I guarantee that the “he” in the sentence is just as frustrated as the person who writes it. But a lot of the people in question are exceptional at the things they do for a living. I don’t go around describing myself as a genius, but more than once I’ve had that word thrown at me for applying programming solutions that seemed as simple as slicing potatoes. If I’m considered a genius by colleagues, shouldn’t it be harder for me to lose a job than to keep it?

Whether we look and act obviously different from others or whether, like me on a good day, we seem like annoying normal people, autistic individuals face unique difficulties in the workplace as in most social settings. These are hard things to identify from the inside, like my issue with a relatively simple diagram covering subject matter I should be able to understand with ease. Likewise, in meetings where I have to do a lot of talking, I may take ten words to explain something that a colleague then reduces to one well-chosen word. For as long as I can remember, getting information into my brain that wasn’t either extremely visual and/or auditory, or at least directly related to science fiction, has been difficult in most cases. If you went to college, you probably remember long hours reading texts and taking notes from them. I remember some hours reading texts, though most of the time I was just reading words and getting no meaning from them. In hindsight, probably because I’m no longer in that setting and so it’s like seeing the problem from the outside, it’s obvious to me that I should have sought help with this issue; it cost me in terms of the quality of my education. But at the time, as far as I could see, the books were just hard to read because of poor writing.

It’s perfectly clear, see?

Take the autistic inability to change perspectives from the academic setting and put it in a professional environment and you have a serious problem. In some companies, the culture is such that if a manager has a problem with you, you might hear about it in clear, unmistakable language. But from personal experience, you’re more likely to receive indications that are polite and even subtle, if expressed at all. Try these subtle hints on someone who takes two or ten times as long as the average person to identify and interpret all the commonplace non-verbal hints in even a rudimentary conversation, and you might be inclined to ask “how do you not get fired for that?”

In spite of likely (though hard to measure) over-representation of autistic people in technology jobs, this prominent difficulty among people on the spectrum to simply gain or retain employment means a lot of specialized abilities remain under-utilized, and for lousy reasons. This may have been part of the motivation for execs like Satya Nadella at Microsoft, who a few years ago instituted a special hiring process tailored to the strengths of autistic individuals seeking careers in software engineering. Abandoning the traditional talking interview, this program places applicants in problem-solving situations dealing with logic problems and puzzles. Demonstrative interviews of this type allow people with social and communication challenges to showcase skills and aptitudes that otherwise remain buried.

These are admirable programs. To an extent, they neutralize relative disability by making it unimportant in the evaluation of candidates for jobs. And they do tremendous good by allowing people who might tank ordinary interviews to show how they can excel if given the right tools. What they don’t do, and perhaps what nothing can do, is give managers an understanding of what the challenges of autism feel like for someone who wants to have a career.

At the risk of being overly personal to an undefined audience, I might classify the feeling associated with my too-common failure to comprehend job-related material like that database schematic in a single word: terrifying. Why is that terrifying? It’s not if I’m comfortable, not worried about financial security, or confident that I can just figure it out, or even realizing that all I have to do is say “sorry, this is hard for me to understand right now, can you explain a little more slowly?” But that’s a hard question to ask, because it breaks the rule that I’m supposed to be smart, and smart people just know. If I don’t know, then I’ll be stupid and I’ll lose my job. Which may happen anyway when the mistakes mount and neither I nor my boss can arrive at a satisfactory explanation.

Or setting aside the inferiority complex, someone might make the mistake of wearing a pair of wool socks to the office after receiving them for Christmas, finding out the hard way that an inability to tolerate the sensation of wool against the skin just isn’t something you can outgrow. Or somebody nearby in the cube farm chews ice cubes during the day, or has an irritating way of speaking into the phone, or hits the keys on her keyboard too hard, et cetera. Not that these ideas all spring from personal experience or anything…no, not at all.

Overwhelm is commonplace for an autistic person. You might have memories of that oddball kid in your neighborhood, the one who had a funny way of talking and who had strange obsessions and strong opinions. And likely spent a lot of time alone, though not necessarily out of a desire for solitude. There’s no shortage of information available now about how ordinary experiences can produce debilitating overwhelm for an autistic person. But it’s easy enough to forget that those things don’t go away just because we learn to hide discomfort as we grow up. And if overwhelm and processing delays lead to mistakes that look like carelessness to the uninformed observer, it’s up to a more-informed manager to recognize the difference. Otherwise, well, you can imagine the eventual consequences.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what the point of all this is. I’m deliberately shying away from a specific point for a couple of reasons. First, good writing has to be researched or supported somehow in order to have a point worth hearing. Good writing with no specific point doesn’t seem to be so constrained in that way. Second, and more seriously, I don’t want to pin my thoughts here to a specific idea, because they may lead you to other ideas that hadn’t occurred to me when I started this article.

Genuine understanding and connection among people is a topic of concern to me. We’re less inclined to hate and hurt those we understand, and more inclined to care for those in whom we see similarities with ourselves. Of all the things technology can do, one of the most important things we could do with it is understand each other better.

Image sources

Over to you...