The Puzzle of Autism

Imagine you have been kidnapped, taken to a strange land and dumped into a society you know nothing about. The culture and society are vastly different than your own, and their social graces and mannerisms are nothing like yours. No one speaks English.

Imagine trying to communicate with these strangers. Not speaking the language, you quickly become exasperated, frustrated and angry. You don’t understand why they don’t understand you.
Now imagine how you appear to them. You are completely different, you don’t speak their language, and you don’t know their ways. You appear to them to be very disturbed, perhaps even insane.

Autism – Defining the Undefinable
This picture is but a small taste of autism. Autism is difficult to define and explain, however, if you have a child with autism, as I do, you work long and hard to learn as much about it as possible.

Autism is part of a spectrum of development disorders that affects communication, learning and social skills. It is, in essence, a complex developmental disability of the mind. There is no known cause or cure, but certain treatments and therapies can help. As many as 1 in 166 people may be autistic, and the rate appears to be growing, although this may be a result of more accurate diagnoses.

Individuals diagnosed with autism often exhibit obsessive behaviours, resistance to change, and strong adherence to routines.

An Autistic Characteristic

Other characteristics of autism include:

  • a short attention span
  • impulsivity
  • self-injurious behaviours
  • odd responses to sensory input
  • mood swings
  • uneven skill development
  • problems eating, drinking or sleeping
  • unusual fears or anxieties

In some cases, autistics have special abilities. Some are exceptionally gifted at art, music, design or software. Some have extraordinary memories or mathematical abilities, as depicted in the film Rain Man.

Simple Genius
Autistics with special abilities (autistic savants) are much like expert systems, computer programs that simulate intelligence. By answering a specific series of questions, these programs solve specific problems. The problem with these systems is that they are extremely limited in their knowledge. A medical expert system, for example, could be used to diagnose a medical condition. However, if you were ask this system, what is a patient? or what is medically ethical? it would not be able to respond. Like the autistic savant, an expert system is highly intelligent, but unable to see the big picture.

An Intriguing Comparison
Let’s look again at the characteristics of autism:

  • ability to focus intensely on a narrow range of topics
  • obsessive attention to detail
  • strong desire for consistency
  • interest in complex matters

Now let’s look at some characteristics of good information developers:

  • ability to focus intensely on a short range of topics (such as information development)
  • obsessive attention to detail (such as grammar, spelling and formatting)
  • strong desire for consistency (as described in a style guide)
  • interest in complex matters (such as software and computers)

The Beauty of Autism
There’s obviously a pattern here. In fact, I would say that many people working in software development (myself included) have certain autistic characteristics. We are not autistic per se, but display mildly autistic attributes. This is not a bad thing, however, because there are many things that probably could never have been invented nor maintained without somewhat autistic people working on them. It has been speculated that such brilliant individuals as Einstein, Michelangelo, Isaac Newton, and Andy Warhol were on the autistic spectrum. Even Bill Gates is rumoured to have a milder form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, so I like to think we are in good company.

So, if you find yourself displaying autistic traits such as being unusually focused on the content and details of the documents you work on, don’t worry. You are simply in the profession for which your mind has been genetically engineered.