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.

First published in the November 2013 issue

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