Most who know me aren’t surprised to learn that I have ADHD. And that I’m on the extreme end of it. Many are surprised that I have Asperger’s. I didn’t know about the Asperger’s until well in to adulthood but finding out did explain a bunch of things.
The following is mostly about Asperger’s but includes a bit of ADHD. It leans a bit towards my own experience but I’ve tried to cover Asperger’s and ADHD generally.
Note: The purpose of this is twofold. First is to help me to better understand Asperger’s. I’ve found that writing about something so that others can understand it helps me to sort it out for myself.
Second is to help others to understand it. An estimated 1 in every 250-500 people have Asperger’s and it becomes increasingly prevalent with higher IQ’s. Very likely the vast majority of people with an IQ over about 130 have Asperger’s. If you want to hire or hang out with the brightest people they’ll likely be Aspies.
What do you envision when you think about someone with Asperger’s? Or Autism?
It’s often not very obvious and contrary to some myths many people with Asperger’s are quite successful. Anthony Hopkins and Elon Musk are good examples. It’s not unusual for doctors to have Asperger’s, especially orthopedic surgeons, and you’ll see Aspies throughout the science community. Here are some famous/successful people who are on the spectrum.
It was often joked about one software development group I ran that having ADHD or Aspergers was a requirement for employment. There was more truth in that than joke. Temple Grandin once commented “Half the people working in Silicon Valley probably have autism.”
By most measures I’ve had a good successful life. I’ve a wonderful wife and terrific kids. Our kids have been successful and most importantly are people of good character who you can always rely on to be honest, kind and dependable.
I’ve some of the best friends anyone could ever ask for.
In my younger years I raced bicycles, cars and motorcycles. I toured with some well known bands as a sound or lighting engineer, I’ve had a successful career including being COO of two companies and I’ve made some money.
Imagine a world of Aspies. Everyone is honest and altruistic. You never have to guess what someone is saying, try to read between the lines or wonder if they’re telling the truth. Fairness and Justice are universally valued and practiced. Nobody plays political games – decisions, be they family, municipality or business, are openly and honestly discussed with the most logical, fair and altruistically beneficial winning out. That doesn’t sound too bad. 🙂
Aspergers (and Autism and ADHD and …)
Aspergers is sometimes referred to as the high-functioning portion of the Autism Spectrum which is somewhat true though there’s a bit more to it. If you have above average intelligence and certain Autism traits then you are likely an Aspie, though not necessarily. High functioning and IQ are not the same thing so there are many high functioning Autists who would not be classified as Aspie and there are people classified as Asperger’s who are not high functioning.
Autism is a spectrum and a quite wide and some say too wide of a spectrum. It includes some of the most brilliant and successful entrepreneurs, artists and inventors in history as well as people who are so disabled by autism that they cannot function in this world without considerable assistance. The definitions are also changing with even psychologists often unsure what to label someone but knowing that for various systems they need to figure out a label.
There’s a spectrum within Aspergers as well – with each person having different bits of various traits. Having a limited neural executive communication function is a core requirement while only about 50% exhibit strong bits of other elements such as an intense interest in a single subject or a strongly monotone voice. I think all Aspies have some form of repetitive behavior though it’s very mild for some and quite prominent in others.
My autistic traits are not generally very strong, perhaps averaging a 2 or 3 on a scale of 10. My strongest is a limited executive function but I don’t think I have a monotone voice at all. I’m very sensitive to sounds, light and smells but special interests have been minor. I do very much like routines but can usually adjust when necessary.
Our brains are, based on brain scans, physically different, literally wired differently, which results in them functioning differently. Above we can see the extra neural pathways in Temple Grandin’s brain (left) for associative visual thinking compared to that of neurotypical people (right). The executive function for communications might appear the exact opposite.
This is also totally different from Savant Syndrome. Only about 50% of savants are on the autism spectrum and only about 3% have Aspergers. While some savants do have a very high IQ, most do not with an average of about 83.
Aspieness – A Huge Heaping Dose Of Directness
The way that people most often experience our Aspieness is that we tend to be very direct and sometimes perhaps overly thorough. We don’t sugar coat what we say or wrap it up in a culturally sensitive package.
While someone who does not have Asperger’s might take a considerable bit of time for a long meandering journey to slowly lead someone to near to where they are going, Aspies take a very direct route to the exact point. We might use 5 words for what others might say with 40 or 4000.
In this we are perhaps not a lot different than Dutch (or Finns, Swedes, Germans or Austrians) in how we interact. What often differs is people’s reaction. They might excuse the directness of a Dutchie as ‘that’s just the way people from The Netherlands are, isn’t it refreshing’. Not so much an American Aspie who’s expected to meet a different set of cultural expectations and so is judged on that.
On a forum a Finnish friend and I swapped ID’s for a few months. I said what I normally would with his and he said what he normally would with mine. It was fascinating that he suddenly found himself being criticized for what he said while I experienced the opposite, and this even when I was more blunt than usual. I was a Finn, that’s just the way they are!
Most people, those who do not have Asperger’s and who are commonly referred to as neurotypicals or NTs, have a quite powerful executive function in their brain – it takes a thought, judges it, formats it and presents it in a timely and culturally acceptable way. This function is somewhat lacking for Aspies so there’s limited judging if something should be said nor formatting it to be said in an extra nice culturally sensitive way nor presenting it at a proper time. Rather there might just be a quite blunt statement that comes crashing out.
This works on the receiving side as well. We often take things quite literally. What someone says, the very exact words, is what we hear. We are quite awful at getting hidden meanings, reading between the lines, interpreting sarcasm or reading facial expressions – things that require the powerful executive function that we lack.
This is all not much of a problem in many business or scientific environments where it’s expected that people will state things truthfully, directly, succinctly and correct mis-statements – so we fit in well to that space. And many Aspies are indeed quite successful from a career standpoint.
It’s a bigger problem outside of work settings where people, particularly in the U.S., are often not expecting nor desiring such directness.
An Aspie friend once said “There’s not enough talk about how weird Neurotypicals are.” And went on, somewhat tongue in cheek, about how NT’s get emotional, need things candy coated and are too easily offended and alienated.
People from other countries often face similar challenges in the U.S. Their culture is much more direct than the U.S. and they find Americans to have thinner skin that’s much more easily offended or hurt. They have an advantage though in that, thank’s to their neural executive function, they can moderate their natural cultural directness to better fit U.S. culture. For Aspies that’s not usually an option.
If we’re so smart and logical, why can’t we just figure it out? Well, I think in some cases we can but that requires enormous time and effort. What the executive function does is quite amazing and is not easily replaced by general purpose brainpower. And sometimes it’s simply impossible – what’s needed isn’t there. It’s perhaps like telling a quadriplegic to plant a tree.
It’s kind of like most people have a high performing automatic transmission that they don’t even have to think about while with our manual we not only have to figure out when to shift and what direction but then have to reach down and manually move each of the various cogs and plates separately in just the right order with perfect timing.
What a neurotypical brain does in less than 1/20 second could take 2 to 20 minutes for an Aspie. And even then often very imperfectly.
I’ll spend time thinking about how to respond to someone in written correspondence, only to later learn that they were still hurt or offended. What I said was truthful and accurate, I thought I wrapped it up in a culturally sensitive package, why are they so offended? It can then take considerable time for me to figure out what I did wrong.
Sometimes, hours after having thought about and written a response, I’ll think of some way to say it softer or less direct and I’ll go back and change it.
We are perhaps a square peg in round holes. If only the holes were a bit larger we fit just fine.
There are a lot of quite good aspects that come along with Aspergers.
Logical. We are typically very good with logic. Interestingly even with logic based on human reactions – yet we have a rather low EQ – go figure.
Honest & Altruistic. Aspies tend to be extremely and sometimes un-tactfully honest. This even when it doesn’t serve our own interest. Dishonesty …isn’t logical. There’s a problem related to this though, we can have difficulty understanding how others can be dishonest which can result in our being taken advantage of. Unsurprisingly, we’re not very good at politics.
Desire To Connect. A lot of people find this one interesting because our rather blunt communication style and seeming lack of tact would seem to say otherwise, but most of us do like to connect with people. I love having people over or getting together with friends for lunch or drinks. Many aspies have experienced so many hurtful encounters being rejected by others due to their directness that they choose to not interact with others to avoid the pain.
Thinking Outside The Box. When someone encourages others to ‘think outside the box’, there’s no need for Aspies, especially those with ADD – for us there is no box.
Fairness & Justice. We often have a quite absolute sense of fairness and justice. Anything that is unfair or unjust can drive us bonkers. I think like with honesty & altruism, this is because unfair and unjust aren’t logical. But these are illogical on another level. I really really hate seeing people misled or taken advantage of for instance.
Straightforward. We say what we mean and mean what we say. Otherwise just isn’t logical.
We Don’t Do Political Games. We are quite bad at politics whether polis, business or personal.
Caring. Though we’re not exactly warm and fuzzy, we generally care very deeply about people. This is perhaps a component of fairness, justice and disliking seeing people taken advantage of.
Detail Oriented. Can’t see the forrest for the trees? Not a thing – we see them both …along with the leaves and the cells and the atoms, electrons, fermions, bosons and other bits that make up the leaves. And the planet, solar system, galaxy and some of the universe. And at the ends wondering what the elementary particles are made of and what’s beyond the universe. And all at once! We are often very good at understanding if you tweak something over here that this, this, this and this will happen elsewhere.
Pedantic. This may sound like a negative but is actually a positive. Aspies tend to value accuracy & precision. This one for me is interesting because I actively tried to suppress this in conversations for many years (I would provide much too much detail, or noted every exception that might exist for what I was saying or corrected minor errors in what other people said) …and was perhaps too successful.
Immune to influence. This one’s complicated because on the one hand we can be extremely overly trusting. On the other hand we often see through misleading marketing better than most.
Emotionally Stronger. We have had to overcome a lot of challenges in life and this tends to make us stronger. We can still be hurt though.
Intelligent. Aspies by definition have a higher than average intelligence simply because the diagnosis requires it. But there’s more to it and overall Aspies do tend to have higher IQ’s and similarly people with higher IQ’s often have Aspergers (and ADHD and are bi-polar – the MENSA cocktail). It’s critical here to point out that while having some highly intelligent people around is definitely a good thing, it’s not singularly valuable. A good community needs people of varying abilities and IQ is only one of these. We need people who are caring and others who are wise. We need people who are able to and enjoy building and growing things.
Forgiving. Aspies tend to be very forgiving, especially of people reacting to our Aspieness.
Take Life Seriously. I think this is largely because we see problems that many others do not. We are often accused of being too serious though.
Thanks to these benefits Aspies often make for exceptional employees.
Elon Musk is perhaps one of the better official examples. But also Anthony Hopkins, James Taylor, Dan Akroyd and a long list of others. Bill Gates has never said but he and other entrepreneurs certainly exhibit many of the traits. Garrison Keillor is one of the more brilliant people I know and he’s definitely on the spectrum.
Scientific discoveries and inventions often come from people who are on the autism spectrum and most often Aspies. We are generally rather exceptional with cause & effect stuff which is why, for instance, many medical discoveries are made by aspies.
I think it was Temple Grandin who said that without Aspies we’d still be living in the dark ages.
Aspies are intelligent, honest, caring
What we lack is; 1) the ability to wrap communication in cultural sensitivity, 2) ability to lie, mislead, cheat or steal, 3)
Honest forthright communication is wrapped in a xxxx of cultural stuff. We don’t do the cultural stuff.
Many of us really struggle with people who are dishonest or deceitful. It’s difficult for us to comprehend.
We can get worn out trying to adjust to NT world.
There are some definite challenges with Aspergers, [both for Aspies and those who interact with us. ]
Communication. We talked about this a little bit above. If you need stuff sugar coated we’re not the one for you.
We lack a wink and a nudge function.
If you need an Aspie though, learn to take directness for what it is and understand that it’s not a personal judgement (unless it clearly is). I think most Aspies are well aware that EVERYONE is far from perfect…
Warm & Fuzzy? We often don’t do warm and fuzzy very well.
Jovial? Some aspies are actually quite good comedians but overall that’s not us. Serious R Us! Part of this is perhaps that we see a lot of problems that others don’t. And these problems concern us.
Hyper-Sensitive to Lights, Sounds, Smells, etc. I am not as hyper-sensitive as many Aspies. I can startle easily and am much more sensitive to lights, noise and fabrics than most NT people but I think I’m a bit below the average for Aspies. Interestingly I worked in the rock music industry for a few years as both a lighting designer and FOH sound engineer and that was fine and I still enjoy going to concerts. I do sometimes need to hibernate though and when we built our new house I had my office insulated for sound so that I have a place relatively free from noise and light that I can escape to.
Overload / Meltdowns. OK, here some behind the curtains stuff… Sometimes our brain gets overloaded and we have what can best be described as a meltdown. Many of us learn to control it in public. We bury it or in some cases just walk away.
A great example though is a recent overload of mine. I have a pretty set routine for making porridge and coffee in the morning. At one point I press the ‘brew’ button on my espresso machine (Breville Oracle Touch – highly recommended!) that begins about a 10 second period before espresso will begin to flow. I then grab my cup that’s been sitting in the sink w/ hot water in it, quickly dry it, and stick it under the portafilter. One day my drying towel wasn’t there.
On many days I would simply have put the wet cup under the portafilter. Or pressed the brew button to stop the brewing process until I could get a towel. On this day I overloaded. I sort of panicked. I was jabbing at the buttons on the machine turning it off and on, I pulled the portafilter out and slammed it on the counter, and then walked off to find some place of solitude to collect myself.
It took about an hour before I could function at all and about a day before I was recovered.
Interruptions. Sometimes we might have a number of things in our head that we’re trying to get written down and if we get interrupted they all go poof. Our experience is that this can be extremely costly as we may never remember then again or it may take a very long time to get back on track.
Small Talk. We’re sometimes not so good at small talk.
Someone might say something that triggers a thought in our head that triggers another thought and another, all in perhaps 2 – 10 seconds, so we’ll say something about that last one because it is extremely interesting in relation to what that person just said. The problem is that nobody else went through the links so it sounds to everyone else as totally unrelated. And often explaining the relationship can take a long time.
Reaching Out. We often don’t do this so well, even when we’d like to talk to someone or see them.
Reading vs Hearing. We tend to comprehend and remember what we read much better than what we hear.
Reality Distortion Field. We sometimes confuse imagination, particularly future focused imagination, for reality. We can have such a clear visual image of something, a new product for instance, that we will briefly believe it to already exist.
Distracted. I have periods of extreme concentration but am also extremely easily distracted which can make it difficult to get things done. If I’m heading out to run two or more errands I often need them listed or one might not get done.
I’ll go upstairs to get my porridge bowl from breakfast, see something that needs to be put away, find my laptop to leave myself a note that I need some storage bins, notice an email that needs responding to, look something up to respond to the email and find a fascinating article on entropy of quark-gluon plasma, which reminds me that I need to make some cream to fill the whipped cream dispenser for tonight, and on and on. My porridge bowl is still upstairs, I’ve not ordered the storage bins, I didn’t yet reply to the email, but we will have whipped cream tonight.
Curious Distracted. There is almost nothing that doesn’t fascinate me. I love to learn stuff. There is also an associative thinking element to this. While reading and learning about something it will trigger an associated thought that leads to more reading and learning and this then leads to another and another.
Intelligence and Thinking Differently
Like many aspies and as described by Temple Grandin, I think in pictures – I’m a Visual Thinker. I’m not quite as tied to visual as Grandin, but from conversations with NT’s I’m much more visual than they are.
This is a great strength for things that can be visualized. I was good at designing heat sinks for electronics because I could visualize heat transfer from a device, through a heatsink, and in to the surrounding air. I’d often still do the math to make sure I’d not missed anything but I could skip over most of the trial and error that others had to do because I could do it in my head.
Grandin points out that there are two other thinking types; Pattern (Music/Math) and Verbal. Aspies will typically be one of these three or perhaps a combination. In my case I am strongly visual but not strongly Pattern or Verbal. I’m OK on those last two but not exceptional.
Many or perhaps most aspies are also Associative Thinkers.
Intelligence is interesting. Aspies are higher IQ. I have an IQ of 163 (actually 158 & 168 = 163). I’m generally very quick at learning and figuring things out, especially anything dimensional or spatial but generally most technical or logic based stuff.
On the other hand I’m awful at politics.
Interestingly, I’ve never solved a Rubik’s Cube nor do I think I’d be able to.
Just because someone has a high IQ doesn’t mean that we know things, just that we can usually figure things out quickly. I frequently learn from a variety of people with a variety of IQ’s.
It’s important to note that IQ is only one element of who we are and not the most important. I think character is overwhelmingly number one and this is one that we all have complete control over.
If we look at the world around us we can see that we need many different kinds of people with different attributes. We need people who can be leaders and people who can be project managers. We need people who can fight to help protect us
having a high IQ does not make someone a good person. Hitler’s top lieutenants ranged from about 127 to 143 and most believe Hitler was between 140 and 160.
Aspies are intelligent, honest, caring
What we lack is; 1) the ability to wrap communication in cultural sensitivity, 2) ability to lie, mislead, cheat or steal, 3)
Stubborness. We can seem rather stubborn. Part of this is simply that our very direct form of communication simply comes across that way. But it’s also because we tend to be careful about what we say. We’ve usually thought it through and maybe researched it a bit. We’ll definitely change our mind but we’ll usually need some good proof if it’s to be different from what our research has already taught us. We do very much love to learn and have intelligent debates though.
(though I’d be just as happy with much less and my wife is fond of saying that all I need to be happy is coffee, scotch and my laptop)
Thinking In Pictures by Temple Grandin
In A Different Key by John Donvan and Caren Zucker