Aspie in a fishbowl
OH: It’s not personal, it’s just mconnor
At first I laughed at this, but it (and a succession of other things) prompted me to write something that’s considerably overdue. Around nine months ago, it was confirmed that I’ve been living with Asperger Syndrome, which explains a great many things about how I act, how I treat people, why I fail, and why I succeed. I’ve managed to succeed much more than I’ve failed, through a combination of skill, hard work, and a lot of luck, much of that while living in the world’s biggest fishbowl. But along the way I’ve hurt feelings, caused anger, and brought a lot of frustration and tension into the lives of many people I respect and care about. Almost all of it was unintentional, and unconscious, and often the responses, especially the angry ones, have been bewildering and upsetting. But at least now I know why.
Living as an undiagnosed aspie isn’t especially awesome. I don’t read people well, without distinct effort and focus. I especially don’t do well in large social situations (a key factor in some of my infamous episodes), but I just thought I wasn’t especially well-adjusted. I tend to not self-censor, and say things without really thinking them through. A really big one is that I tend to argue points strongly, and express opinions in very certain and definitive terms. (I’m still working on that one…) Hardest of all, I can come off as anti-social and cranky, but those who know me best know I’m a big teddy bear.
On the other hand, there are some aspects that are really helpful. I can grasp really complex and chaotic systems (like how software gets shipped). I often notice details and patterns that others don’t. I can handle doing grindy tasks for long periods of time, without it driving me crazy. I can focus on things to the exclusion of others to get things done under pressure (that one cuts both ways, to be fair). I don’t think I’d be where I am today without some of those traits.
Since I’ve been diagnosed, I’ve also shifted my day to day focus to Labs, especially Weave, which was a transition into a less rough-and-tumble environment than the Firefox critical path. This has been a challenge for me, but it’s also been a learning experience. Being blunt and aggressive is something I’ve had to tone down, and working with a lot of people who aren’t used to me has taught me that I need to modulate my approach. For anyone interested, there’s a few key things that matter in living with AS in a tricky world:
- I need to slow down my responses, and be much more intentional about what I say and how I say it. I will throw things out there, and I may not even mean what I say to be definitive, but that’s how people take it anyway.
- I need to listen more than I talk. Something I learned from John Lilly a while back is “argue as if you were right, listen as if you were wrong” but that only works if there’s an established trust relationship, and I don’t always apply my best judgement.
- I need to be honest with myself about my limitations and my mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s okay. But I need to accept and own the problems I create, and I need to work to not repeat them.
Ultimately, AS is a blessing and a curse. I like my brain, I like who I am 98% of the time. The other 2% sucks, and while I’m working on that, change is slow when it’s brain wiring. In the meantime, I want to work even better within Mozilla, so I would like anyone reading this, who interacts with me, to keep a few simple guidelines in mind:
- WYSIWYG – I put my cards on the table right up front, as much as I can. If you’re reading ulterior motives into my behaviour, you’re probably getting it wrong, but please feel free to call me on it, I may not realize it.
- If I upset you, I almost certainly didn’t mean it, and telling me would be very helpful for me to continue to learn. I know it’s hard to call people on social gaffes, but I will thank you for it (even if it’s hard to hear).
- Not understanding is hard, so I’ll often ask lots of questions if I don’t understand. That often comes across as arguing with someone’s choices, which is unfortunate and damaging. Again, call me on it if you think I’m doing it.
- I probably shouldn’t ever talk to press without a grownup around. Just sayin’.
I suspect some of the people reading this post also have AS. Jeff Atwood has written about AS on Coding Horror, it was in Wired a long time ago, and it’s not exactly news. But I have learned a lot from having it confirmed, and from learning about how it impacts, and how I can adapt. I’ve quit drinking (it’s just not a good idea), I’m in a healthy relationship now, and I’m constantly working to get better. It’s a process, and often a frustrating one at that, but I am determined to make the best of it. I would encourage anyone who identifies with what I’ve written to seek out a diagnosis. It doesn’t mean you have to change who you are, but it gives you the opportunity to change how you affect others, and if you’re anything like me, that’s what really matters most.