Could Your Boss Have Asperger’s?

By the time she learned of her disorder, she’d been fired repeatedly. How did someone with such poor social skills develop a thriving career?

by Penelope Trunk
aspergers illustration
Illustration: Brian Cronin

It is my business partner’s birthday. We have been through two years and $4 million in funding. We’re together every day, but I can’t say happy birthday. I wanted to skip work to avoid it, but I had to come in because we are getting so many media calls for our product launch—a tool that allows companies to recruit people from blogs.

I sneak past his office and go to a friend’s cube and say, “I can’t tell Ryan happy birthday. I’m going to die. I can’t do it. I feel too stupid. I think I might cry if I have to do it.” And then I am actually crying.

She says, “Whatever. He knows you can’t do it. Just go tell him you know it’s his birthday but you can’t talk about it. That’s enough.”

I do that. Ryan smiles, and we move on to bigger things.

I have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism marked by poor social skills and above-average intelligence. So this is how I get through my days: I have helpers—people who know I have Asperger’s and who expect weirdness from me and who give me scripts to say when I’m at a loss. However, many of these people work for me, which can make this kind of office interaction painfully awkward. For them, not for me: I don’t understand awkward, and so I don’t mind asking my employees for help. (Studies about women with Asperger’s show that we do better in the world than men because we’re good at getting help with social situations.) People with Asperger’s love scripts. It’s just that I don’t know how to generalize from the scripts. I will feel the same social stress when my friend in the cube next to me celebrates her birthday. Then Ryan will have to script me on how to say happy birthday to someone else.

I learned that I had Asperger’s when I was 33; I was trying to diagnose my four-year-old son and realized all the boxes I was checking off for him also applied to me. There were earlier signs, of course: I didn’t brush my teeth on a regular basis until I was in my midtwenties. I thought it was a casual, do-it-when-you-feel-like-it thing. Until I was 30, I wore only skirts and dresses—I wasn’t sure how pants should fit. I always knew I was bad with faces, but two months after my son’s birth, I still couldn’t remember what his face looked like if I was not in the room with him. Later, I found out that a possible detail of Asperger’s is face blindness.

Part of the reason I wasn’t diagnosed sooner is that Asperger’s is extremely hard to identify. Also, the disorder wasn’t included in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic reference until 1994—although Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger first described it in 1944—so in the past, telltale signs were often chalked up to bad social skills. Plus, people will excuse a lot of odd behavior in a kid who is smarter than everyone else in school. I used to study the encyclopedia at my desk while other kids were learning to read. I wrote a novel while other kids were figuring out how to write complete sentences. Then, around fourth grade, people lost patience with me: I’d forget to go to school, or I’d flunk gym class because relocating to my locker and changing clothes required too much planning. My teachers thought I was lazy.

In my twenties, I began shocking people at work instead of school. At my first job—as a project coordinator at a small website—I was assigned to post Yoko Ono’s interactive art online, but when her submission came in, I rejected it. I had no idea that an assistant could not call up Yoko and tell her the work was subpar. “She’s done better,” I told my boss. “We all know that.” He fired me before I could explain further.

At my first Fortune 500 job, I wore thrift shop clothes to work—straight out of the bin, unwashed. “We have a dress code,” said the HR representative assigned to deal with me. “How can you tell me which clothes to buy at the thrift shop?” I replied. “There’s no way HR is a better shopper than I am for what I like.” I didn’t understand that they didn’t intend to handpick my wardrobe; they just wanted me to stop wearing dirty, threadbare clothes. They fired me for insubordination.

Later in life, I realized my husband had some of the telltale traits of Asperger’s. He was a celebrated musical savant and started college when he was 15, but he can’t balance a checkbook. People with Asperger’s often marry each other, maybe because the syndrome runs in families and therefore seems normal to kids who grow up surrounded by this kind of behavior. My frame of reference for men is that they should be brilliant, quirky and socially withdrawn. Like my father, who has a Harvard degree but can’t hold down a job. Or father-in-law: I am told he helped invent GPS. I’m not kidding. He invented GPS, but he eats standing up and doesn’t believe in family ties.

Roughly 80 percent of adults with Asperger’s syndrome do not have full-time work, according to some studies. By the time I figured out I had the disorder, I had been fired from every job I had ever held. I had offended everyone I knew. Think of all the thoughts and judgments that go through your head that you’d never say aloud: You’re fat. You’re lazy. Your clothes don’t fit. Your office smells. I say these things because they’re true, and I’ve since built a career on saying what no one else will say—or maybe I have a career in spite of that.

The thing you would notice first if you met me at my office is that I can’t do social niceties. You might say, “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”

I would say nothing. Because I wouldn’t be able to decide if I should say, “Thank you.” Or “It’s nice of you to come.” Or “How are you?” Or “Do you like the weather outside?”

When I say nothing, you will be thrown off guard because you have not been in this position before. But I’m in it all the time, so I can recover faster than you. While you are deciding that I must not have heard you, I will be leading you toward our meeting spot and shifting the conversation to the work at hand. And ta-da! I’ve gotten myself out of all social-skill requirements, and we are getting our work done.

If you have Asperger’s, the key to building a career is to be very good at something. People accept my quirks because I’m so good at starting companies. My inability to see the rules makes me able to think outside the box. I don’t see the box. Also, most boxes are crazy. It is crazy to think you can start a company from nothing and build it to $100 million in revenue. Yet I am excellent at selling this sort of thing to investors. For most of the world, crazy is bad. In the start-up world, crazy is good.

Someone with Asperger’s has an incredible ability to focus; it’s just that you never know what the person will focus on. If someone focuses on her job, she will most likely do it better than anyone else. (That’s probably why companies in Germany and the United States recently began hiring people with Asperger’s to be software testers; they can spot flaws and patterns where others can’t.) But ask someone with Asperger’s to make a judgment call, and you’ll have a problem. We don’t do gray areas. Nuance is a social skill that you don’t recognize until you grasp that you don’t have it.

After I talk to Ryan, I take calls from the media. I can do that all day. I am a genius about consumer trends, and I’ve built four Internet start-ups on my ability to see the future. There is no give-and-take in the conversation with the reporter. I can’t do give-and-take. But I can pontificate, and that works for an interview. I can see connections in the world that other people can’t.

However, that insight comes at a cost. I don’t understand, for instance, why you don’t know that Generation Y is going to get trounced by Generation Z because Generation Y doesn’t like to lead. I have no qualifications to know this, but I know it’s true.

My diagnosis was like finding out I was face blind for 100 different things. Now I understand so much more about myself. For example, I rarely change my clothes before they itch. I can’t handle the pressure of having to adjust to a different thing touching my body.

I used to try to hide that at work—that I wear the same jeans, the same underwear, the same everything for weeks in a row. Sometimes I’d throw a sweater over a sweater; that way, people thought I had changed, but the new clothes didn’t actually have to touch me. Now I realize I have severe sensory integration dysfunction—common with Asperger’s—so I just tell people I am wearing the same clothes because I need to. They don’t care. If you tell others you understand why you can’t change clothes, they don’t think you’re psycho.

People say it is hard to grow old. They miss their younger selves. My younger self was a fog. It wasn’t until after my son’s diagnosis that I learned how to explain my situation and ask for help in a way that encouraged people to give it to me. Knowing how to tell people about my Asperger’s allows me to connect with them.

For example, I tell people who work for me that I will never be intentionally hurtful, because I don’t understand the process; they should just tell me when I hurt their feelings. When they do, I say I’m sorry, even though I have no idea why they would be sad. I try to use the tone of voice that people use for “I’m sorry.” (The inflection goes down at the end of the word so you don’t sound too upbeat.) Next, I ask the person I’ve hurt to give me a rule. What’s the rule for what I should say in a particular situation? After years of practice, I’ve learned how to generalize only a couple of the directives; mostly I just re-ask as each situation arises.

People don’t like instructing their boss on how to talk. It takes a while for my employees and colleagues to understand that I want that. But once they get it, they are happy to help. Because people who work together care about one another, and if you work with someone who has Asperger’s, you have to have the discussion about how to care for each other every single day. So really, you could say that people with Asperger’s make the work world a more meaningful place. If they can hold down a job. 

Penelope Trunk recently launched her fourth start-up, Quistic.com. She lives in Darlington, Wisconsin.

Next: The No. 1 Secret to Staying Relevant in your Career

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First Published Mon, 2013-10-07 09:54

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