Aspie in a fishbowl

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

16 Comments

  1. It’s easy to wonder if the career path of a programmer was designed/intended for people with Asperger Syndrome, or if people with Asperger Syndrome designed/intended to build a career for themselves

    It’s a unique situation that something that’s typically viewed as a “disability” (it’s all relative IMHO) can actually be viewed as a strength for gainful honest employment. Very few if any other known illnesses/diseases/syndromes can ever be spun as a strength with the notable exception of a circus sideshow act. IMHO a programmer keeps much more of their dignity making it a superior job.

  2. Ben says:

    Mike, thanks for having the courage to share that.

  3. I’ve said it before, but I’m repeating myself all over today, so here it is again:

    Really great post, Mike. I wish I were so capable of enumerating my own strengths and weaknesses.

  4. Elizabeth Nicol says:

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. 9 yr old son was “officially” diagnosed last year. Good for parents to hear from and adult Aspie then maybe some parent will realize that it’s not that scary. I luv my wee boys quirky nature and so does he. Good job.

  5. Tiffney says:

    Wow! Everybody should do a post like this and share it with their coworkers. We all have quirks, gifts, and limitations, and since we spend more hours of our day at work than anywhere else, wouldn’t it make sense to get to know how our peers are wired? You can’t get upset with someone when you understand and acknowledge where they are coming from. This “Care and Feeding of mconnor” guide should be a template for all of us — won’t we all do better if we know how to properly utilize one another?

  6. PAw Justice says:

    I have AS too, as does my son and I so agree with your request to others to tell you if you say something that hurts or upsets them. I have to deal with misunderstandings all the time, but unforunately, it’s only those who care and love me who are actually honest enough to let me know when I’ve unintentionally said something out of place. Others just don’t seem able to ay – I suppose it goes against social conditioning, but it does make life difficult.

  7. Axel Hecht says:

    Respect. ’nuff said.

  8. Dan Mosedale says:

    It takes a lot of guts to post something like this where it will be read widely. Thanks for sharing, Mike.

    If more people did this sort of thing, the world would be a better place.

  9. Jane Finette says:

    Mike – you are a brave and wonderful soul. Thank you for sharing, and keep going!

  10. EquiisSavant says:

    Actually, as an adult Autistic savant, I do not feel I should have to conformed my Autie-Savantism to some neurotypical’s psychological problems with needing to feel accepted. To put that burden on me, instead of the neurotypical to conformed to our Aspieness and Autie-savantism is Autism spectrum DISCRIMINATION — Pure & Simple.

    I am not being made to feel like a Second-class Citizen made to Kiss some neurotypical’s You-Know-What just to facilitate their psychological co-dependency on feeling accepted.

    They need to get a Shrink, an Autism language interpreter, or got to Neurotypical AA for their needy “acceptance”-dependency addictions.

  11. EquiisSavant says:

    apologies for the typos — I’m an Autistic savant with synesthesia who sees in pictures, not letters-words.

  12. Peter Nemšák says:

    Respect. You know, I sometimes wish that all people had AS. There’d be less misunderstandings and deceivings among us. Good luck with your goals.

  13. Daniel Glazman says:

    Mike, wow. Let me tell you one thing: your description of yourself, if you except the two words AS, apply to most of the geeks I know (including myself)… Remember: “be yourself, no matter that they say”.

  14. Alexander says:

    If you don’t mind answering, I’d be curious how such a thing gets diagnosed in an adult. What prompts people to ask a doctor?

  15. morgamic says:

    Awesome post. I always had an easy time working with you anyway. It’s cool that you’re recognizing that 2% but don’t overcompensate — still strive to be yourself! You are mostly full of awesome already!

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