The Tech Industry's Asperger Problem: Affliction Or Insult?

Somewhere north of 15,000 American children are conservatively believed to be afflicted with Asperger Syndrome, a disorder characterized by obsessive and rigid behavior, poor communication skills, clumsiness, and a lack of empathy and reciprocity. Cases of Asperger's and a related disorder, autism, exploded in Silicon Valley over the past 20 years, according to state-funded outreach workers — an assertion that will come as no shock to users familiar with pedantic, apathetic, tight-lipped and self-serving tech companies. How, exactly, does Asperger's work, and has it had a material impact on how the technology sector relates to its customers? Below, find a quick guide to those questions, and a look at why one of the Valley's most famously infuriating pedants, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, is rumored to have it.

Silicon Valley's Abundance of Asperger's

Back in 2001, Valley seat Santa Clara County had a worrisomely higher incidence of Asperger's and autism, the local authority on such cases told Wired at the time. "This is a burst that has staggered us in our steps," the director of the regional center for people with developmental disabilities was quoted as saying. A Cupertino public school teacher was also quoted calling the trend toward more and more cases "an iceberg approaching."

The disorders seemed to cluster in other tech hubs, too. Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft was the first major U.S. corporation to offer insurance that covered autism-and-Asperger's-related behavioral training. In Rochester, New York, the local school district advised the mother of a child with Asperger Syndrome to move to the northwestern part of the city, because there were a large number of affected kids there. The northwest quadrant is "where the IBMers congregate," the mom told Wired.

The condition only seems to have become more common in the intervening decade. In a 2011 New Yorker profile, venture capitalist Peter Thiel spoke about the prevalence of Asperger's-like behavior among startup founders. Thiel was Facebook's first outside investor.

"You have all these Internet companies over the past decade," he said, "and the people who run them are sort of autistic. These mild cases of Asperger's seem to be quite rampant. There's no need for sales—the companies themselves are weirdly nonsocial in nature."

There's no clear consensus on how Asperger's unfolds. Some doctors don't even recognize it as a distinct disorder, classifying it as a mild form of Autism, i.e. as an "Autism Spectrum Disorder." Typically, diagnosis involves a team of clinicians with different specialties, and the sufferer is usually a child. Diagnosis in adulthood is more complicated.

Diagnosing Zuckerberg

Here are some of the symptoms routinely associated with Asperger's:

Obsessiveness: The single "most distinguishing symptom" of Asperger Syndrome, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, is "obsessive interest in a single object or topic to the exclusion of any other." This sort of obsessiveness also happens to be a major asset in the field of computer programming, which rewards long hours spent immersed in a world of variables, data structures, nested loops and compiler errors, and which tends to punish mixing this world too freely with the "real" world.

Zuckerberg, you may recall, was prone to spending so much time obsessing over Facebook, his software startup, that his girlfriend insisted on a guaranteed minimum of 100 minutes of alone time together per week before she'd agree to move out to California.

Impaired social interaction: People suffering from Asperger's (the disorder is referred to interchangeably as Asperger's Syndrome and Asperger Syndrome) usually have poor communication skills and other issues interacting with others. On the verbal side, the disorder is often characterized by a monotone pitch or odd inflection and a lack of rhythm. Non-verbal tics can include a stiff gaze, limited use of gestures, and inappropriate facial expressions.

In a widely-cited 2010 post to the popular Silicon Valley Q&A site Quora, former Facebook director of engineering Yishan Wong discussed Zuckerberg's awkward facial expressions and unusual lack of eye contact or conversational encouragement:

He does have a touch of the Asperger's; in my experience this is primarily manifested in that he does not provide much active feedback or confirmation that he is listening to you. I have had multiple experiences where he will ask for my opinion on something and even when we're the only two people in the room, I wasn't sure if he had really comprehended or cared about what I was saying (he doesn't do the usual "oh, all right!" or "hmm, I see!" that most people do; he just listens, sometimes while looking away from you), until later when some strategy change was announced that integrated some or all of my opinions. I think this leads many people to think that he's thoughtlessly autocratic, but it turns out he is actually listening all the time to anything that anyone is saying to him, but you will simply not receive confirmation or acknowledgement until later when he announces his conclusion or decision, whereupon you can observe that he has integrated all his streams of information and advice together.

At a higher level, people with Asperger's tend to observe rigid behavioral guidelines, act in an aloof manner, lack interest in their peers, lack reciprocity, engage in repetitive behavior, and, according to some research, may be unable to understand societal implications of actions. Zuckerberg exhibited several such behaviors during a 2010 interview with tech writers Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at the D conference, a discussion that was later described as "very awkward," with Zuckerberg showing "zero empathy" and being very repetitive.

The official D liveblog of the event highlighted one rigid routine in particular:

Zuckerberg is literally dissolving in a lake of his own sweat... Kara sympathizes, suggests he take off the hoodie he's wearing... Zuckerberg refuses to take off the hoodie. "I never take it off," he says.

Some studies also suggest sufferers have a weak sense of humor: They may understand a joke on a cognitive level but lack "understanding of the intent of humor to share enjoyment with others," as a Wikipedia summary of one study put it.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has publicly described an incident in which Zuckerberg seemed to lack a sense of humor and in which his verbal communication skills otherwise failed him. Describing a meeting at Facebook headquarters to Howard Stern, Stone said,

We went into a room together and Mark went in first and sat down on a chair, leaving just a love seat for Ev [Williams, Twitter co-founder] and I. I went in next and sat down, and then Ev came in third, and said, "Should I leave the door open or should I close it?" And Mark said, "Yes." And Ev said, "I'll just close it this much?" ...

I got the impression talking to him he was one guy but had 12 people in his head... I was making all these jokes and everything, and they were just dying.

He later expanded on NPR:

[Peter Sagal]: He just stared at you like a Vulcan.

[Stone]: Yeah.

[Sagal]: He was like, oh, I understand this is what you humans call humor.

[Stone]: Right...

[Stone]: We get to this awkward moment where he says, 'well, you know, I don't like to talk about numbers, it's not something I do.' And Evan said, 'well, you know, that's not something we do either...' So then Zuckerberg, said, 'but if you'd like to throw me out a number, I'll tell you yes or no right now.' And Evan, said, okay, 500 million. And Zuckerberg said, 'that is a big number.'

And I said, 'you said you'd say yes or no.'

Clumsiness: Asperger's is also characterized by uncoordinated motor movements, including an odd gait, poor balance, and bad handwriting. At the same time, those affected by the disorder often engage in repetitive movements like "hand or finger flapping or twisting, or complex whole-body movements."

Zuckerberg's critics have sometimes tried to slam him by way of associating him with the disorder. Outspoken startup investor Jason Calacanis called Zuckerberg "an amoral, Asperger's-like entrepreneur" while accusing him of ripping of various partners and prospective co-founders. A year earlier, Calacanis had linked the syndrome to a spate of online privacy scandals:

The dual nature of Asperger's, from my understanding, is that it makes the individual focused on very specific behaviors–obsessively so in many cases–while decreasing their capacity for basic empathy and communication. It's almost as if you trade off intensity in one area for common decency and communications in another area–not that the person has a choice.

Well, trading off people's feelings for page views and Twitter followers sounds familiar to me.

A Broader Issue

Inflammatory though his comments may have been, Calacanis raised an interesting question: To what extent can rampant abuse of user privacy among tech startups be traced to Asperger Disorder? And to what extent does modern web programming, in its demand for both speed and obsessive attention to technical detail, inherently reward Aspergian tendencies? Are the very Aspergers-like features that made Silicon Valley a hotbed of innovation — a relentless desire to commune with machines, a willingness to push past consumers' technological comfort zones — turning it into an antisocial, sometimes parasitic force?

Zuckerberg's Afflicted Peers

These people have not been medically diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, but have been identified, in some cases by themselves, as potential sufferers.

Craig Newmark, Craigslist

In 2009, the Craigslist founder blogged that the symptoms of Asperger's felt "uncomfortably familiar" every time he heard them listed. He said that his Asperger-like issues included difficulty with eye contact, general problems with social behavior, and "the inability to accurately assess [my] own feelings and the feelings of others." At the same time, he cast some doubt on his self assessment, writing that he was a "mostly suppressed" hypochondriac.

In 2010, after he froze up during an ambush interview by CNN's Amber Lyon, Newmark wrote an op-ed in which he mentioned that "I'm a hard-wired nerd with symptoms I'm told border on Asperger's Syndrome. That means I'm too trusting, often socially inept, have difficulty shifting focus, and frequently am unsure what to do in situations others handle easily. And I don't have a normal person's ability to sense when someone might be looking to take advantage of these shortcomings."

Bram Cohen, Bittorrent

Cohen self diagnosed himself with Asperger's, according to a 2008 BusinessWeek article that described the Bittorrent creator as "disoriented, in the everyday swirl of human interactions… he doesn't like to shake hands or wear shoes or make small talk. He often plays with a Rubik's Cube. Sometimes when he is outraged, or more often when he is fatigued, he bursts forth with unwelcome candor. He can be oblivious, lecturing on solar cells or economic theory or euphemisms until someone stops him."

Cohen's co-founder said he had to explain to employees that they were allowed to cut Cohen off and even gently reprimand him on his behavior, because otherwise he would distract them and prevent them from getting work done.

A 2005 blog entry by tech journalist Glenn Fleischman described Cohen at a conference as having "an affectless voice" and said he "offers terse and often somewhat offensive replies to many questions, and doesn't seem to have much interest in anything but certain aspects of network programming."

Bill Gates, Microsoft

The Microsoft founder's name often comes up in press discussions of the disorder, though the case for Gates' affliction is not a particularly extensive one. Wired put it this way: "His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. "

Asperger's Is Good For Business

It would be one thing if Zuckerberg's stilted, robotic personality and apathy for the concerns of users were an isolated case. But the tech world is awash in privacy scandals lately. Dave Morin, a former employee of Zuckerberg's, recently apologized to users after his startup Path was caught surreptitiously uploading and storing users' iPhone address books. Another startup, Airbnb, apologized after awkwardly dealing with a customer whose apartment had been vandalized after Airbnb rented it out. At one point, one of Airbnb's young co-founders asked the customer to keep quiet about the incident so the company could close an important funding round.

Even seasoned Silicon Valley watchers have begun to balk at the mounting frequency with which tech companies and their founders make decisions that advance their obsession of the moment — like a new technical feature, for example — in ways that seem utterly antisocial.

As always in business, some of this behavior inevitably boils down to greed and immorality. But in a region that celebrates novelty and innovation, what's most fascinating aren't those mundane cases, but the possibility that some of this behavior might actually be genetic. That's one obsession even non-aspies won't be able to let go of anytime soon.

Gif by Jim Cooke, photo via Getty.