Monday, October 20, 2008

For Aspies, joy is elusive.

October 13, 2008 (Computerworld) The column I wrote last week, titled "Asperger's Oxymoron," offended some readers because of my contention that the contributions that Aspies can make to society are necessarily undermined by the degree to which they are withdrawn from society. My belief that isolation is detrimental to the human spirit and to the advancement of the human race isn't a particularly popular notion.

There are many dimensions to isolation. One that seems to be particularly common among Aspies is a detachment from social norms that, rather than manifesting itself as endearing nonconformity, tends to be more of an oblivious self-centeredness. The focus is inward, rather than outward. Take Richard Stallman.

I mentioned last week that Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, had referred to himself in a 2000 interview as being "borderline autistic." While he shied away from that assessment in my interview with him in July, Stallman did acknowledge that he suspected he had a "shadow" form of Asperger's.

I knew very little about the disorder at the time, but it did strike me that he appeared to be somewhat eccentric and glaringly devoid of social grace. I thought it was cool that he felt comfortable enough to meet me in his stocking feet, so that was fine. But during the course of the interview, there was an inescapable rudeness. Just little things. It's no big deal, for example, that throughout a meeting that lasted nearly two hours, he sipped from a large mug but never offered me so much as a drink of water. It's just that it clearly demonstrates an inward rather than an outward focus.

The interview, and extensive subsequent e-mail correspondence with Stallman, reinforced a conclusion I'd drawn from a 2002 biography I'd read to prepare for our discussion: Stallman is not a happy person. There was a certain melancholy that I've since observed in other people who identify themselves as Aspies. In fact, I've observed through my untrained eye that Aspies can be content in a certain environment, but real happiness seems to elude them. Is that conclusion off-base?

For a reality check, I e-mailed Barbara Bissonnette, principal at Forward Motion Coaching in West Boylston, Mass. She provides career counseling for adults with Asperger's.

"I wouldn't say they are inherently unhappy people," Bissonnette replied. "Most have had lifetimes of not fitting in, being ostracized/marginalized and hearing about everything they do 'wrong.' ... The fact that it's a hidden disability compounds the problem because people don't realize that some of the unusual behaviors of an Aspie are not intended to be rude."

That the rudeness may not be intentional doesn't make it any less off-putting. I recently received an e-mail from Roy Brander in Calgary, Alberta, who wrote that when he was president of the Calgary Unix Users Group, he invited Stallman to speak. Stallman agreed and asked to stay at a member's home rather than at a hotel.

With an estimated 40% of the world's information now residing behind a firewall, employee productivity is driven by the ability to quickly find key information no matter where it's stored across your organization. At Google, we believe in a simple premise: all of the information you need to be productive at work should be available through one search box, giving users real-time access to content across the enterprise and delivering a single, integrated, secure set of search results. "The guy who hosted him vowed, 'Never again,' " Brander wrote, adding that it's impossible to spend time with Stallman "and not think 'Asperger's syndrome.' " He noted that while Stallman's legendary inflexibility can be forgiven because it "may have hard-wired neurological roots," his intransigence is marginalizing him within the free software movement.

I'm now convinced that Stallman has far more than a "shadow" form of Asperger's. I'm also convinced that his relentless free software advocacy is driven by a personal distaste for proprietary software, rather than by any interest in advancing the well-being of others. Hence Stallman's joyless demeanor.

Whether or not the elusiveness of joy among Aspies is inherent, it remains painfully apparent. What brings true happiness is serving and uplifting other people -- looking outward rather than inward. Aspies deserve that happiness, and they should receive whatever assistance is needed to bring it about.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at, and visit his blog at

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