Google: A Hostile Workplace For Non-Neurotypicals?
A thought: I wonder if fired Google programmer James Damore is on the autism spectrum. It has long been known that a disproportionate number of people in software development show signs of having Asperger syndrome. It has a lot to do with why they’re so good at their jobs.
Aspies — the term is not really used anymore, but it was when my family became acquainted with the condition — are not neurotypical. Their brain’s wiring makes it easy for them to focus intensely on narrow interests, and they tend to be brilliant at the things that they focus on. Software development is a natural field for them. Microsoft even has a program to hire more people on the spectrum, because the neurological condition that makes many jobs difficult for them also makes them great programmers. They are detail-oriented, and can often see the logic in systems easier and quicker than others.
But there’s a hitch. From the Fast Company story linked to in the last graf:
What’s unorthodox about this, of course, isn’t just its setup. It also represents a novel, and potentially fraught, expansion of the idea of diversity. The impulse to hire more autistic employees is based on the same premise as hiring, say, women and people of color: Doing so not only welcomes in a wider range of creative and analytical talent, but brings more varied perspectives into an organization, and makes for a workforce that better reflects the general population of customers.
And yet, being autistic is considered a brain disorder, and it affects the way people process and communicate information—skills that are at the core of many white-collar professions. Adickman and his cohort were, in a sense, subjects in the third iteration of an ambitious experiment. Could the third-largest corporation in the world make the case that hiring and employing autistic people, with all their social and intellectual quirks, was good, not bad, for business?
People on the spectrum usually lack the ability that neurotypicals have to understand social signals, emotional cues, and social hierarchies. It’s not their fault; they just can’t see these things. Learning to live with someone on the spectrum requires you to show a lot of mercy and patience. Aspies often say things bluntly, but they mean no harm. And they tend to take things literally. For example, if the company they work for tells them that it values open expression, they may not understand that the company doesn’t mean that literally. The point is, it is very, very easy for people on the spectrum to step out of line, without meaning to. It is difficult for them to understand how things look to other people. This is not because they have bad character. It’s because of the way their brains are wired.
Another point: people on the spectrum tend to have a real problem dealing with disorder. This can manifest itself in different ways. For example, they can be acutely sensitive to injustice, real or perceived, and perseverate on particular instances of what they consider to be unfairness. To someone who doesn’t understand how the autism spectrum works, this can look like jerkiness. But it doesn’t seem that way to the person on the spectrum.
Does this have anything to do with James Damore and his case? I have no idea. Perhaps Damore is not on the spectrum. But I tell you this: I feel very sorry today for Google employees who are on the spectrum. They may have little to no intuitive feel for how the social, and social justice, hierarchy at the company works, and won’t know if something they think is unproblematic is actually stepping on a land mine. As microaggression obsession turns workplaces turn into neurotic hothouses, they become far more dangerous places for people on the spectrum, who are at a severe disadvantage navigating through these dangerous waters.
If Google (and other companies) really mean what they say about diversity, then they ought to be more sensitive to the particular social challenges faced by those employees on the spectrum. They ought to be teaching neurotypicals how to work productively with people on the spectrum — and that means giving them a lot of grace. Again, James Damore may not be one of those employees, but if he is on the spectrum, his memo — in its content, its language, and that he released it at all — would make total sense. And whether he is or isn’t on the spectrum, a lot of the people who work on the tech side of people surely are. They have now been put on notice by Damore’s firing that theirs is a hostile workplace environment for people who are not neurotypical.
This is something we ought to be talking about, beyond Google. I would love to hear from readers who are on the autism spectrum, about how they cope in the workplace, given how sensitive companies have become to “microaggressions,” and how unforgiving office culture is about transgressions.
UPDATE: Reader “Aspie In Massachusetts” comments:
I’m a former software and hardware tech writer who was fired from many jobs, essentially for being an Aspie. While I was considered as technically excellent and a good writer, I couldn’t pick up social cues.
Over the years, I made various comments that to me were neutral or even positive. Yet I was often told that my comments were offensive. I had no idea why.
Once I learned that I was an Aspie and was taught some social skills, I learned what to say and what not to say. But it was too late for me; I had been fired from so many tech writer jobs that I could no longer find another job.
From what I’ve seen and read of James Damore, I’m sure he’s an Aspie. I suspect that lots of men in high tech think the way he does but know not to say so in public.
So while I find Damore’s ideas repugnant, I also have compassion for him. I suspect he had no idea that what he wrote was offensive. Aspies’ brains are wired differently than those of neurotypicals. Therefore, what many neurotypicals perceive as bad character is really biologically caused lack of awareness.
Rather than firing Damore, I think he needs to be taught some social skills. He’s hardly the only sexist male in high tech. His problem was that he didn’t know not to express his ideas out loud.
Some further points:
* There’s a software company in Denmark that hires only Aspies, and it does very well.
* I don’t think that the issues of Asperger’s or social skills in the workplace have anything to do with right-wing and left-wing, so I wish people would stop framing it in those terms.
* Asperger’s is NOT a mental illness – – it’s a neurological difference. If a disproportionate number of Aspies suffer from anxiety and depression, it’s probably because neurotypical society treats us so badly.
* Those of us in the Asperger’s community still use the term Asperger’s. It’s a valid descriptor, and the DSM 5 committee that decided to eliminate the term was wrong.
UPDATE.2: Reader yahtzee:
This is a common discussion at Slate Star Codex, which has a high percentage of readers/commenters on the spectrum and a high percentage of Silicon Valley folks (with the obvious overlap).
What you’re saying here is exactly right: bright, red lines and clear, concise goals with measurable results are what make sense to people on the spectrum. Judging social cues, who’s in, who’s out with the boss, understanding (unspoken!) hierarchies, playing office politics; these are things that people with high emotional intelligence are better at.
Mix in a totalitarian, all-consuming religion that dominates social media and has colonized parts of the tech world, and you are creating an environment where the rules-based autistic folks are going to be eaten alive. The new inquisition is based on watching the right people and the right trends, and knowing when to declare that, not only are we at war with Eurasia. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. And knowing to declare it loudly.
Oh, and another thing that trips up autistic folks: rule #1 about the social order is you can never talk about the rules of the social order, or acknowledge that it exists. Well, that’s not going to work, because talking about rules and order is pretty much a favorite pastime of people on the spectrum. It’s why Freddie DeBoer is always on the outs with the Twitterati on the left, because he’s slightly autistic and can’t follow rule #1.
The totalitarianizing left has enough problems trying to convert people with any sort of message other than the cudgel of fear. The idea that they’re going to wake the sleeping giant of tech-autists, and convince them that there’s no place for them in the utopia they’re trying to build is popcorn-worthy, to say the least.