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

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 My frame of reference for men is that they should be brilliant, quirky and socially withdrawn.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.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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