Feminism, Interview, Neurodiversity, Science, Tech

The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

Last year I was working on an article about the tech industry when I decided to interview a software engineer who writes for Quillette under the pseudonym “Gideon Scopes”. Gideon had mentioned to me in passing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild variant of autism spectrum disorder) and I wanted to find out more about the industry from the point of view of someone who is not neurotypical.

I first asked him when it was that he knew he wanted to work in technology. He told me that he first knew it when he was five. His family got their first home computer and he was transfixed. Later, he would come across a brief introduction to the BASIC programming language in a book and proceed to teach himself his first programming language. He was only seven.

As a child he taught himself programming out of books, mostly alone at home. He told me that his family were not particularly supportive of his hobby. His mother was not happy to see him focus so intently on one interest and viewed his study of programming “as the equivalent of a kid spending too much time watching TV.”

Growing up in suburban New York, he told me that a compiler for a programming language would cost at least $100, and programming books generally cost $40-60 each. His only source of income was a $1 per week allowance, so it would take him a year or two to save for just one item. This was despite the fact that his parents were in a high income bracket, and could have easily provided resources to help him learn. He learned anyway.

Despite his cognitive ability, however, Gideon underperformed early on in his schooling. He thinks it may have been because he experienced the school environment as overly rigid and inflexible, and the work was just not challenging enough to engage him. It wasn’t until he was able to take accelerated math and science classes that his grades reflected his ability.

Fast forward several years, and today Gideon is a successful senior software engineer in a prestigious technology company in New York. He loves his job and he loves where he works. He is grateful for the fact that his company values his work, and not how he promotes himself and how he dresses. He feels that the technology industry rewards talent and hard work, and that it is one of the best places for “Aspies” to be. He tells me that the only drawback is the occasional bar event (where he doesn’t like the noise) and a weird and somewhat rigid political culture.

*   *   *

A paper authored by Simon Baron Cohen et al in 2001, outlines a brief measurement tool for screening for autism in adults who have normal or above average intelligence. The tool, which is called the Autism Spectrum Quotient (ASQ) can be self-administered and only requires a pencil and paper; individuals receive a score from 1 – 50 with scores closer to 50 representing a higher likelihood of having Aspergers or High Functioning Autism (HFA).

In validating the test, Baron-Cohen assessed a range of adults including some with Aspergers or HFA, randomly selected controls, students in Cambridge University and winners of the UK Mathematics Olympiad.

The results were remarkable. Adults with Aspergers or HFA had an average score of 35.8, much higher than the controls who had an average score of 16.4, (with men on average scoring slightly higher than women). Among the Cambridge University students the average score was the same as the control group, except mathematicians and scientists scored significantly higher than humanities and social sciences students, which, the researchers claimed, “confirm[ed] an earlier study that autistic conditions are associated with scientific skills”. Within the sciences, those studying mathematics scored the highest. This was again reflected in the scores found in the winners of the Mathematics Olympiad, who scored significantly higher than the male Cambridge humanities students.

More recently, in 2015, a team of researchers led by Baron-Cohen collected the autism quotient scores of half a million people on the UK’s Channel 4 website, after the airing of a medical education program. They found that the mean AQ score was 19.83, with men scoring 21.55 and women scoring 18.95. They also found that individuals working in STEM careers had a higher average score (21.92) compared to those who didn’t work in STEM (18.92).

The theory underpinning Baron-Cohen’s work is the prenatal sex steroid theory. The theory posits that when a baby’s brain is developing in utero, the amounts of hormones produced by the ovaries or testes his or her brain is exposed to affects its development. Baron-Cohen’s theory predicts that exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the prenatal period leads to a “masculinization” of the brain, which can result in symptoms associated with autism. Such symptoms include higher rates of delayed language, reduced eye contact as well as higher attention to detail and a stronger interest in systems than people.

Critics of Baron-Cohen’s work have long said that while his hypotheses are interesting, the evidence so far has been insufficient. The core criticisms have focused on his reliance on proxy measures for prenatal testosterone (looking at digit ratio rather than sampling amniotic fluid directly) and self reported measures of behaviour, such as pencil and paper or online surveys. These methods have not been adequate, claim the critics.

Such criticisms have been met with further research, however. In 2015, Baron-Cohen published the results of the first direct test of amniotic hormonal fluid levels and their relation to the development of autism later in life. He found a clear relationship – boys with autism had been exposed to elevated levels of testosterone, cortisol and other sex steroid hormones in utero. When the study was published, The Guardian quoted Baron-Cohen, who explained: “in the womb, boys produce about twice as much testosterone as girls, but compared with typical boys, the autism group has even higher levels. It’s a significant difference and may have a large effect on brain development.”

In my interview with Gideon, he mentions Baron-Cohen’s work to me. He tells me that it resonates with his own experience and his experience of taking computer science classes at university. With regard to the tech industry he says—

I’ve opted to stay in the closet at work to avoid the risk of either being discriminated against on account of the AS label, having others unfairly discriminated against in the name of helping me (à la affirmative action), or being perceived, whether correctly or incorrectly, as having gotten where I am because of my diagnosis rather than on merit. There are a number of people I’ve met over the years who I suspect are likely on the spectrum, but I can’t really bring it up in a work setting. I definitely find that software engineers tend to have higher levels of autistic traits than the average person on the street, even if the overwhelming majority wouldn’t have enough to qualify for a diagnosis.

People with Asperger’s or high functioning autism often struggle socially, and those with more severe versions of the syndrome are often incapacitated in the social realm. So I asked Gideon what his social life was like growing up. This was where the story became fraught. Gideon says that he was mostly a loner at school, but made one friend in second grade and another in fourth grade, whom he felt very close to. But things eventually changed. He wrote to me in an email—

During sixth grade, my two friends from elementary school both turned their backs on me. With David he did so by telling me, “I was never your friend. I just took pity on you.” At the time, I was perplexed by the comment and didn’t understand why I was someone to be pitied. Looking back on it now, I wonder if he may have known about my AS [Asperger’s Syndrome] years before I did. In seventh grade, I made some new friends, but that only lasted for a few months before they each decided that I wasn’t cool enough for them.

Gideon also suffered serious bullying in elementary school and middle school. He was picked on by both girls and boys; and at times this escalated into violence. One boy was suspended from school after repeatedly trapping him and violently strangling him in a busy hallway near the gym during passing time.

Despite these social difficulties and other symptoms such as hypersensitivity to touch and prosopagnosia (difficulty recognising faces) it wasn’t until he was in college that he received a diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome. He says the “breakthrough came during a Yom Kippur service during my junior year”

I was standing there in the sanctuary, and the distress from the shirt I was wearing was such that I couldn’t focus on the service. It felt horrible—there I was at the service on the holiest day of the year to atone for my sins against God and other people, and all I could think about was my own suffering! Then, this crazy theory came to me. I had read something several months earlier about the similarity between Asperger’s syndrome and the traits that characterize a “nerd” or “geek” in popular culture. I had also heard something years earlier about autistic people having issues with certain types of clothing similar to my own. I put the two together and wondered if I could have some very mild level of autism. After the holiday was over, I went on Google and typed in “Asperger’s syndrome.” I pressed enter, and my life changed forever.

*   *   *

When the tech industry is written about in the media, it is often portrayed in terms of its maleness and sometimes “macho” qualities, exemplified by the widespread use of the epithet “techbros” and “brogrammers”. As an example, a book about the Valley has just been released with the portmanteau Brotopia as its title. This is a growing phenomenon.

Yet the tech industry more broadly is rarely discussed in terms of friendliness towards those with high functioning autism, such as Gideon. On the job selection process Gideon says:

When you come for a coding interview, it’s a three- to five-hour-long oral exam. Show us what you can do. That’s what we care about, ultimately, not how good you are at talking yourself up or what you look like.

Speaking of what someone looks like, the fact that software engineers largely have the freedom to dress as they please is huge for those of us with sensory differences that affect clothing. Before I realized that this would be such a non-issue in my field, I was worried that I’d have trouble finding a job at all if I insisted on being able to work and interview under humane conditions. I suspect that people with similar sensory issues whose interests and aptitudes lie elsewhere may face a really tough situation that
I’ve been fortunate enough to not have to deal with.

On the day to day work experience he says—

The technology industry is one of the most Aspie-friendly places that there is. The social demands on software engineers mostly consist of collaborating with colleagues to build a product, so if your social skills are good enough to handle that and you’ve got good technical skills, you can be very successful.

Gideon tells me that in his experience there are many autistic traits that don’t fit at all with our cultural conception of masculinity. Hypersensitivity to sensory stimulation is one of them, as is the tendency for those with autism to develop anxiety and depression—conditions that in the general population are higher in women than in men—the predilection of autistic people to prefer consistency and predictability also contrasts with the masculine trait of risk-taking.

Nevertheless, individuals who are adept at systematising tend to be good at the tasks which are profitable in today’s information economy. Baron-Cohen’s work shows that systematisers tend to be interested in patterns, and can quickly spot them in natural, mathematic or mechanical settings. A good empathiser, by contrast, can quickly spot emotional states in others. While both skills are vital, and have been crucial to our evolution as a species, our modern economy increasingly rewards those who can build systems which scale, ratcheting up productivity and efficiency. Often—but not always—it’s systematisers who do this (it’s also worth remembering that this will not last forever, with the advent of automation and AI).

Yet the fact that systematisers are often well remunerated in today’s economy does not mean that these individuals have lives that are necessarily easier, or even happier than the average person. A person who is an outlier on the systematising spectrum might find it hard to make friends, find a girlfriend or boyfriend, and engage in the day-to-day social activities that make up so much of our lives. Last year, Thomas Clements, a writer with autism, wrote for Quillette

Every morning when I wake up I feel a heavy sense of trepidation as I contemplate the complex series of social interactions I will have to navigate in order to make it through the day at work. Being on the autism spectrum makes me instinctively averse to the superficial chit-chat I am expected to engage in in my job as a retail cashier. To my mind at least, small-talk serves no real practical purpose. It just makes me feel on edge and increases my overall stress levels as I expend huge amounts of cognitive energy decoding idioms and non-verbal communication…I am prone to be blunt, sometimes to the point of rudeness, which is a personality trait that tends not to sit especially well with many members of the so-called ‘neuro-typical’ or non-autistic world.

As accounts like Thomas’s describe, autism can be extremely debilitating, especially if one sits further out on the spectrum. But even those who are “high functioning” often describe social anxieties, unemployment and prejudice. The fact that the tech industry is perceived by some as being “friendly” towards those with autistic traits could be seen as a positive attribute—and one that deserves recognition.

But the industry does not receive recognition for being friendly. Most of the media attention that the industry attracts focuses on sexism. For example, The New Yorker recently published “The Tech Industry’s Gender Discrimination Problem,” which argued that the lack of women in companies such as Tesla was due to a rampant culture of misogyny, on par with the criminal predation of Harvey Weinstein. In April 2017, the prestigious The Atlantic ran a cover story titled: “Why is Silicon Valley so Awful to Women.

The Atlantic’s April 2017 issue.

The articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker contained the same reasoning. which can be reduced to the following syllogism:

  1. The ratio of men and women in the tech industry is uneven,
  2. There are cases of sexism and sexual harassment within the tech industry,
  3. Sexism and sexual harassment has caused the imbalanced gender ratio.

Of course, women are sexually harassed in the tech industry just as they are harassed in every other industry in which they work—so the first two components of the above reasoning are correct. But the third is simply unfounded. There is little evidence that shows that harassment in tech is any higher than other industries, such as public administration, government, academia or media (in fact there is evidence that the prevalence is lower). Statistics collected on sexual harassment find, overwhelmingly, that the majority of reported cases occur in low-wage and service sector jobs. The causal evidence showing that sexism causes the gender imbalance simply isn’t there.

What we do know, however, is that while girls and women do meet the diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder, the ratio between men and women sits somewhere between 5:1 to 3:1. We also know that men and women’s interests diverge in ways that are congruent with Baron-Cohen’s systematising- empathising spectrum. Women overwhelmingly prefer working with people, and have “artistic” and “social” vocational interests, and men overwhelmingly prefer working with things and have “investigative,” “enterprising,” “realistic,” and “conventional,” interests.

Indeed, academics at the Heterodox Academy have concurred that the most important sex difference that is relevant to the question of unequal gender ratios in certain industries is that of enjoyment and interest. My interview subject, Gideon, did not need any direction from a teacher to learn coding. He learned it because he was transfixed by computers, and teaching himself to code was a pleasurable activity for him. When I ask if there are any benefits to having Asperger’s Syndrome he says—

For me, the hyper-focused special interest aspect of autism is one of the greatest joys in the world and a significant part of why I’ve been able to be so successful at what I do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The extremely strong memory and navigation skills are also very much something to cherish. Certainly, there have been plenty of difficulties when it comes to how I’ve been perceived by others, especially as a child, and how to navigate a world that’s built for people whose sensory perceptions work differently from mine. I believe that most of this can be fixed in good time through awareness and understanding.

My discussion with Gideon made me reflect. If the technology industry is indeed a friendly place for Aspies and those who have subclinical levels of autistic traits, then intuitively, it is going to attract and retain more men than women (at least in the engineering streams) due to baseline rates of systematising, combined with men’s demonstrated interest in working with “things” rather than people. Stating this is not sexism, it is simply engaging in probabilistic reasoning.

Of course, none of this rules out sexism and sexual harassment as playing a role in deterring women or prompting women to leave the industry once they are there. But any discussion of women in tech should at least mention sex differences in systematising and autistic traits, and sex differences in vocational interests as a relevant factor, even if it is to rule these factors out. Of course, the recent articles in The Atlantic and New Yorker do no such thing.

James Damore, who wrote the infamous ‘Google Memo,’ has recently said that he may have high functioning autism himself.

In The Guardian, he was reported as saying—“my biggest flaw and strength may be that I see things very differently than normal…I’m not necessarily the best at predicting what would be controversial.”

In considering Damore’s experience, it’s important to remember the caveats that Damore included in his memo. He wrote:

Note, I’m not saying that all men differ from all women in the following ways or that these differences are “just.” I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.

Despite this, he was, of course, fired for “perpetuating gender stereotypes”.

In an email, Gideon mentioned to me that when the news first broke about Damore and the Google Memo, he immediately suspected that Damore “was on the spectrum,” and possibly further out on the spectrum than himself. When I asked him to explain why, and he said:

If he didn’t get the message that the women in science movement wasn’t interested in dialogue and is glad to destroy anyone who questioned it then he must be [on the spectrum]. The only reason why it was him rather than me winding up that [kind of] situation is that I realized what was happening well enough to keep my mouth shut at work and to also turn down an offer from Google, since I knew that they [are] one of the worst offenders, if not the worst.

I asked Gideon if he thought that the American media painted a distorted picture of the gender gap in tech. He told me yes. He chalked it up to three factors: a growing tendency towards collectivism in American culture, combined with a blank slate view of human nature and an empathy gap towards men.

He said that society increasingly sees groups instead of individuals, to the extent that group rights may supersede individual rights in all sorts of contexts, including politicised work environments. Because contemporary moral codes delineate women as vulnerable or marginalised, we stop seeing them as individuals with unique talents and idiosyncrasies, but as representatives of a victimised class. The reverse is true of men. Because women are now a victimised class, men are increasingly seen as victimisers, irrespective of their individual attributes or actions.

The second factor, he thought, was an attachment to an outdated, blank slate view of human nature. He says that many people still insist on seeing the human brain as predominantly moulded by culture, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. There tends to be a hesitancy towards attributing any differences between people to any cause that is biological in origin. This hesitancy has been around for decades, and appears like it will not be alleviated anytime soon.

And the third factor, Gideon said, was the empathy gap, where we tend to be more receptive to women’s pain than men’s. When women talk about being made to feel uncomfortable at work, or being sexually harassed, we feel empathy and want to punish the wrong-doers. But we don’t have the same reaction for “geeks,” or “techbros”. Because our understanding of neurodiversity is painfully lacking, our culture tends to view men as a homogenous category, seeing all men as inheritors of privilege and all men as possessing the masculine traits that foster toughness and resilience. We have a habit of ignoring those who don’t, and when they do talk about their vulnerability, we are inclined to ignore, or ridicule them for it.

 

Claire Lehmann is the editor of Quillette. Follow her on Twitter @clairlemon

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40 Comments

  1. Ruslan says

    Despite being diagnosed with Asperger, Gideon seems to have a good insight when it comes to judging the crux of social interactions. I would’ve never thought that the following apt observation would be brought up by someone with this sydrome:
    “If he didn’t get the message that the women in science movement wasn’t interested in dialogue and is glad to destroy anyone who questioned it then he must be [on the spectrum].”

    For all the hallibaloo that his memo has generated, Damore does not seem to be socially maladaptive either. He knows exactly what’s going on. It’s interesting and somewhat paradoxical that in the currect zeitgeist it takes to be on the spectrum to espy hypocrisy in social interactions and bring it to the fore.

    If these two people, Gideon and Damore, are any indication, I’m willing to reavaluate my notion of people with Asperger as being socially maladroit. At least Gideon and Damore see what needs to be seen and disregard all the bluff.

    • Nathan Spears says

      People with Asperger’s can navigate social situations remarkably well after they learn “the rules” of social interaction. Socializing is obviously a very complex game, but there are basic rules than can get you far, and if the person has enough internal machinery to pick up facial expressions and body language, they can often learn to interact in such a way that the Asperger’s isn’t apparent.

      it can actually be quite fun, if still cognitively tiring, to use and improve your “social system” of rules. It’s just another set of patterns to be recognized and systemized, after all.

      • Jason says

        I have a relative with Asperger’s and it’s true; once he’d learnt the “rules” of social interaction he acts quite normally. But he doesn’t so much interact in a social setting, rather manipulates his way through it.

        He’s confided in me that he approaches social events as a puzzle or a game, with rules and pieces to be moved.

        • Debbie says

          I have a son who I always thought was on the spectrum. However, he’s not, at least according to the professionals. Nonetheless, we’ve made a habit of prepping him for social activities if we can. For instance, as a young child he often spent time with his aunt. She had him script out his nightly “this is what I did today” phone calls to his mother.

          Somehow he navigated public schooling remarkably well, with a minimum of bullying or negative experiences, and is heading to college in the fall. We’ve been doing a lot of scripting…

      • Bill says

        I’ve never been diagnosed formally; however, on the self-assessment tests i’m in the low 30s and my wife once said she thought I was on the cusp, and I have a nephew in the same boat. That being said, Nathan’s point is consistent with my own personal experience as well as some of my colleagues who fit a similar personality mold. We navigate social situations well and typically are just labeled “introvert” (as someone posts further down, a lot in IT are I*** on Myers Briggs, i’m INTJ. We learn to navigate simply by avoiding confrontation. I think this is actually part of why people like Damore and even President Trump cause such hysteria. They are speaking what a great many think/believe/feel but internalize because that is how we’ve learned to navigate the social environment. We are so accustomed to being smacked down that we shy from anything controversial — which is the OPPOSITE of what the science around innovation says that you want.

        • MBTI is not as good a personality psychometric as Big 5. That’s what research psychologists prefer by a wide margin.

    • I know I have some tendencies towards Asperger’s, even if they’re probably not enough for a label.

      I’ve also been told my social skills and awareness are actually pretty good.

      The thing is, they haven’t always been good. I grew up preferring books and computers over my fellow humans, and only really realized how important social stuff was a couples years after finishing college and joining the adult workforce.

      When that happened I read everything I could find about body language and social cues and how to socialize, and then once I had enough to work with I made a point of practicing. And I apparently got to be pretty good at it.

      But I still prefer computers over humans a little bit, and tend to miss social cues just from not paying attention or there being too much going on at once. And while I can understand why there is sometimes a social backlash to stating facts, I could easily see myself forgetting to consider it. To the point that I keep a mental checklist to consult before commenting on things that people seem to care strongly about.

    • “I would’ve never thought that the following apt observation would be brought up by someone with this sydrome: “If he didn’t get the message that the women in science movement wasn’t interested in dialogue and is glad to destroy anyone who questioned it then he must be [on the spectrum].””

      Aspies are really good at spotting patterns. Anyone paying attention to the focus and tenor of the public discourse on women and STEM would see a consistent, repeating pattern of penalizing men who have any criticisms of currently popular diversity initiatives or who even question the practicality or morality of enforcing equal outcomes.

      I suspect that Damore knew he was skating on thin ice, which is why he worded his memo so carefully, reiterated several times that the ultimate goal of the memo was to present what he believes would be more effective strategies to increase the ratio of women at Google, and why he included so many disclaimers and caveats.

      All of that said, it bears mentioning that the memo existed on internal forums for nearly two months, during which several indignant coworkers brought it to the attention of management, and in all that time, he was never called on the carpet for it, or even asked by his superiors what he meant by it. It was only after a vengeful “diversity enthusiast” coworker leaked it to the press that the repercussions rained down on him.

      Had it stayed internal to Google, he might have been just fine. Some senior manager might have even quietly and without fanfare attempted some of the strategies he suggested.

      And given that he has grounds to sue for wrongful dismissal under three state and federal statutes, perhaps he believed that would protect him from being fired.

      But honestly, even an aspie is going to know, in the current climate, what is heresy and what is not. Damore’s only failure was that he didn’t realize just how bad things were.

  2. Nathan Spears says

    To add to your concluding remarks, it’s like “toxic masculinity” is an unveiling or confession of “true” masculinity rather than an imbalanced and warped masculinity. Therefore men who exhibit any masculine characteristics must be walking inexorably down an unfortunate path toward toxicity.

    Paradoxically, those same toxic attributes are assumed to act as a shelter to men from any potential harm from women: the vulnerability you speak of is seen as laughable because men don’t have access to feminine qualities like vulnerability. The patriarchy shields them from harm.

  3. Julia says

    Thanks for that article.
    “social difficulties and other symptoms such as hypersensitivity to touch and prosopagnosia (difficulty recognising faces) ” …. that is so me -_- … but so far I just haven’t bothered getting a diagnosis. Might be interesting tho. Maybe sometime when I’m not swamped with work and private projects LOL.

  4. SophieK says

    First: There is no longer such a thing as Aspberger’s. It’s been discredited as it overlaps sociopathy far too much. Many rampage shooters have been previously diagnosed as Aspberger’s,, so clearly there are missing pieces here.

    Second: I’m an analytical, introverted creative, female with no social skills issues and I score 38 on the test referenced.

    Third: Women are harassed in tech because nobody has set the “rule” to not do that. Aspies respond to rules and just have to be told right? So if they ARE told and break the rules there is something else going on. Like, oh, say, guys doing exactly what they want with no regard for anyone else? Which both genders and all neuro types are prone to?

    • >> Women are harassed in tech because nobody has set the “rule” to not do that.
      –Sophie

      Are you kidding me? There is no group, ever, in the history of humanity, that has more “support,” formal and informal, that women. Men… protect women. Women… protect women. Point to an class of humans with more explicit support???

      I won’t hold my breath.

      The fact that you go on the attack here… is emblematic of how this story plays out in mainstream culture.

      >> When women talk about being made to feel uncomfortable at work, or being sexually harassed, we feel empathy and want to punish the wrong-doers. But we don’t have the same reaction for “geeks,” or “techbros”.
      — The author

      Here is Sophie, demonstrating the point.

      There is endless support for women in corporations, particularly “new” ones in tech. HR departments are staffed by mostly women, coming from “toxic humanities” programs, at universities that preach the “muhh women are so oppressed” narrative.

      You think “diversity officers” are interested in men’s health or agency? Certainly not white men.

      >> Statistics collected on sexual harassment find, overwhelmingly, that the majority of reported cases occur in low-wage and service sector jobs. The causal evidence showing that sexism causes the gender imbalance simply isn’t there.
      — The author

      I haven’t done the research… but this seems true on it’s face. Sorry Sophie, “poor womens” argument is tired and self-serving. Painfully self-serving.

      Where are the thriving, “started by women,” “all women” tech companies??? If you “poor abused women in tech” are so ready to change the world… why isn’t that happening? What is stopping you from proving that you don’t need men at all?

      And if you’re not ready to found/run tech companies that out perform existing companies… you might be thankful that the existing companies employ you… and give you something to complain about while you sip your latte.

  5. Panacea Liquidgrace says

    You’re right, SophieK: there’s no such thing as “Aspberger’s.” However, Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis has simply been subsumed into “Autism Spectrum Disorder” in the DSM 5 in the U.S. No discrediting or sociopathy involved. However, this change is controversial in many quarters as there are substantial differences between Aspies and those who have classic autism. Regardless of what it’s named, the condition itself still exists and has existed as long as humans have existed.

    Are some Aspies jerks? Of course they are, just as some neurotypical people are jerks. My own neurodivergent kids range from an empath who shuts down at the first sign of conflict (male), a belligerent abrasive dramatic type (female), a coolly scathing logician (male), and a relatively oblivious kid (young male). No rampage shooters, yet, though.

  6. First: There is no longer such a thing as Aspberger’s. It’s been discredited as it overlaps sociopathy far too much.

    There was never any such thing as ‘Aspberger’s’.

    Asperger’s, on the other hand, was grouped in with other Autism Spectrum Disorders in the last DSM: it is still a distinct diagnoses under ICD 10. America is not the world.

    It has fuck all to do with psychopathy. Psychopathy is not recognised under DSM or ICD, antisocial personality disorder is.

    APD involves a deficit in affective empathy, the ability to feel what others feel; ASD is a deficit in cognitive empathy, the ability to read emotions. They are not the same thing.

    Many rampage shooters have been previously diagnosed as Aspberger’s,, so clearly there are missing pieces here.
    Second: I’m an analytical, introverted creative, female with no social skills issues and I score 38 on the test referenced.

    I think you are confusing AQ and IQ.

    ?Third: Women are harassed in tech because nobody has set the “rule” to not do that. Aspies respond to rules and just have to be told right? So if they ARE told and break the rules there is something else going on. Like, oh, say, guys doing exactly what they want with no regard for anyone else? Which both genders and all neuro types are prone to?

    If you actually scored high in systematising instead of pretending to because you think you are owed a living you’d see that paragraph makes no sense.

  7. You’re right, SophieK: there’s no such thing as “Aspberger’s.” However, Asperger’s Syndrome as a diagnosis has simply been subsumed into “Autism Spectrum Disorder”

    Quite. If broken arms and broken legs were subsumed into the category of broken limbs that wouldn’t mean people no longer broke their arms or legs.

    People with ASD are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. Neurotypicals may think they are ’empathic’ but that often manifests itself in beating the living shit out of autistics.

    That’s really what we see from The Guardian and other liberal media when they cover the tech industry; a desire to kerb stomp nerds for having the temerity to be good at their jobs instead of letting the less competent have a turn.

  8. Alex says

    I have worked in S/W development for over twenty years. I am not on the spectrum and am unable to comment on those aspects of the article. However, I would like to say that although women are a minority of the S/W devs with which I’ve worked, there is no doubt that some of the best devs I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with are women. As far as I could make out their contributions were recognized commensurate with their performance and they were promoted/paid accordingly. Generally speaking that’s one of the great things about the tech industry (at least as far as I have experienced it here in Canada), your work speaks for itself … if you produce good work at a high level of productivity then you will be rewarded accordingly. Compared to stories I’ve heard from friends and family regarding other industries (especially public sector), my experience in the tech industry has been very straightforward and politics-free. I should add that there is also room for people (both men and women) who are not necessarily technical superstars but who are strong enough technically and have strong interpersonal and managerial skills to advance up the chain of command, for example as Project Managers, departmental managers/directors, etc. One of the best PMs that I’ve ever worked for was a woman – she was simply brilliant at her job. Also my current Director is a woman, and again I hold her in very high regard. So, to summarize, although there may be relatively few women that I’ve worked with in technical or related roles in the tech industry, I believe that those who I have worked with are able to succeed every bit as well as the men – on their personal merits.

  9. I’ve seen Mr. Damore doing interviews. He seems a bit geeky and naive and somewhat short of words, but also seems to make good eye contact and interact well enough. He says he like puzzles, though. He did suggest that people who are a bit on the specturm are suited to coding, as they call it now, but seemed to be referring to other people, not himself. I studied computer science when I was young, and my observation was that the geekiness advantage resided mainly in an ability to maintain interest and focus and persist and not get bored with coding. This geekiness characteristic was not that common among the people I knew, and I knew no women who were geeky in that way.

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  11. Jon Hendry says

    “The theory posits that when a baby’s brain is developing in utero, the amounts of hormones produced by the ovaries or testes his or her brain is exposed to”

    Um, exposure to hormones produced by the *testes* when in utero? The baby’s own testes? Because it’d be pretty uncommon to have uterus and testes.

    • Yes, the baby’s own testes, though there are some hormones and disrupters that appear to be able to cross the placental barrier.

  12. Aubrey Kohn says

    I personally evaded recruitement by Google due to their brutal treatment of rational evidence-based political incorrectness. From everything my friends at Google have said in private, a very astute manager is required to protect you from the Inquisitors in mid to upper management levels, pursuing their personal entschosslung. Since you can only rarely choose your group upfront, it is typically a bad place to start at.

    It seems the larger the company, the more likely it is to be intolerant of diversity and rationality.

  13. Sigh, I am that Aspergian who Google (et. al.) rejected. Total loser me.

  14. simmy dash says

    Having worked in tech for 15 years, I have yet to meet a “techbro”. When was the last time you saw a jock geeking out? That this contradiction goes by virtually unnoticed should be a big sign that this is mostly just an excuse for anti male resentment to be white washed as a progressive complaint.

    Us spergs may not have a lot of affective empathy, but in my experience we are much better at understanding those who are different from us. Neurotypical empathy tends to run on autopilot and falls back to tired fears of creepyness and psychopathy when faced with someone who does not share their responses to certain stimuli. We may lack theory of mind, but “normies” tend to lack theory of minds.

    • Jon Hendry says

      “Having worked in tech for 15 years, I have yet to meet a “techbro”.”

      I think they gravitate towards the management, sales, and marketing side. Many may have programmed but it’s more of a means to an end (wealth). 15 years ago they would have been in shady residential mortgage finance.

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  16. Neurotypical empathy tends to run on autopilot and falls back to tired fears of creepyness and psychopathy when faced with someone who does not share their responses to certain stimuli.

    It’s like we trigger their uncanny valley effect.

    Mind reading is largely projection. A neurotypicals asks themselves, what would I be thinking I if I was in that person’s shoes? That works fine when they are asking about another person just like them. It doesn’t work when they are asking about an autistic.

    We should really be celebrating the tech industry for neurodiversity but perceived sexism trumps disability every time. It’s like the higher incidence of autism among men is yet another example of ‘male privilege.’ The downsides of being on the spectrum are entirely ignored.

  17. alex says

    Political correctness and identity politics must go.

  18. Carl Sageman says

    Another superb article from Claire (Quillette’s founder).
    Firstly, as someone who is married to an Asperger and has an Asperger child, thank you SO MUCH for not making them victims in this article. I firmly reject victim mentality and have avoided this mentality with my children. Aspergers needs no cure.

    My wife has been in the tech industry for many years without any harrassment (or at least significantly less than me), across about 6 companies. It’s something that nobody in the media is interested in taking about (eg. I contacted Wired to see if they were interested in speaking to her … no!).

    People with Aspergers understand systems. This is why they people understand identity politics and the constant deceit of the mainstream media. To quote my youngest yesterday “they [most TV stations in Australia] are attacking the US president for being mentally unfit, but, why aren’t they interviewing any experts?”. That sounds extremely astute for a young child to expect evidence or expert assessment (of which there was none), but, this is the common sense that Aspergers often express. I see this level of analysis in my Asperger frequently, irrespective of the topic. I also see it in his peer Aspergers (eg. autism SA encourage schools to network Autistic kids)

    Claire avoided the discussion of Overton windows (ie. pushing the centre position of a perspective, to establish a new normal, usually an extreme one). The real question is are these media reps honest when they talk about bro culture in order to divide the tech industry by gender? Do they want to know the truth? I firmly believe the media don’t want to know the truth. If you look carefully, the authors sift through fact and carefully select outlying examples (eg. Female programmers in Zimbabwe are 50% of the field – but that single example of Zimbabwe came from a table clearly showing almost every country has women dominating in human/animal careers and men dominating in tech in almost every country of the world. The author purposely hid almost all of the data to present a false picture.. and that includes reputable outlets!).

    This leads to the question of who is pushing the Overton window, what’s their motive and what’s the consequence of this behaviour? The first question is easy. The second is very discomforting. The third is exemplified in Google and James Damore, where truth and integrity were compromised by the media and Google.

    Two last points. As a manager of software engineers, most managers I’ve worked with recognise Aspergers, so, the Asperger in the article has been wise to avoid attention seeking as it would undermine his credibility. If he played the victim card, he would be seen as an unreliable employee in times of need. Also, the industry does hire incompetent women to fill quotas (and it pisses my wife off a lot!). It makes the capable women look bad and casts a doubt over all women – which is why my wife vents about it. It’s usually easy to pick the capable employees vs those hired for quotas. The staff hired to fill quotas are eventually marginalised by their peers as nobody wants an incapable team member. The most vocal attacks on incompetent women tend to come from the capable women.

    And that last point. The article talked about a school friend called David. David may have been the author’s friend until year 6 – when awareness and peer pressure greatly increase. I have seen exactly the same thing happen to other Aspergers (mostly in hear 5 and 6) and the excuse is usually the same. The NT wants the Asperger to go away because the NT is worried what their friends will think. The scorn will equally come from boys and girls, despite what movies portray.

    Claire, you are an amazing human being. We need more people like you!

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  21. DiscoveredJoys says

    Adding another datapoint…

    Years ago I went on a course run by my employer aimed at making senior IT managers more aware of their interactions with senior managers in other parts of the organisation. It used the Myers-Briggs personality tests as a foundation; many of the IT types were I*** types and many of the other managers tended to be E*** types. The theory was that because IT managers were primarily orientated on ‘numbers and truth’ this often seemed at cross-purposes with other managers who were oriented on ‘people and business goals’. Which explained why so few IT types made the company boards, and more recently why perhaps Mr Damore may well have been ‘right’ but still fell foul of the other organisational managers because he was ‘wrong’ by their business values.

  22. Thanks for the article!
    No doubt, there is a ton of things to learn from self-taught programmers. The thing is, they do it with full passion rather than the obligation to pass a college exam.
    As a student myself, i am walking a similar path by making extra-curricula projects and documenting them on my blog thunderwiring.wordpress.com

  23. Incredulous says

    What an incredibly poorly-argued article. The conclusions are predicated on so many leaps of logic and unfounded assumptions that I’m not sure how it was found worth publishing…except that it’s written by the Editor in Chief of this very platform. Perhaps it’s published here because respectable magazines would see it for the tripe it is.



    Why doesn’t the author touch on the empirical problem of women with ASD going undiagnosed (to begin your own research, see here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/autism-it-s-different-in-girls/)? It is unfounded to hand-wave away the disparity in tech by saying “oh, well it’s clearly these autism spectrum traits.” Frankly, it’s facile.



    How is the documented bias towards women in engineering programs completely ignored (to see an article touching on this effect, read: https://hbr.org/2015/03/the-5-biases-pushing-women-out-of-stem)? (For bonus points, read this article discussing why men refuse to believe that bias exists in STEM fields: https://www.wired.com/story/why-men-dont-believe-the-data-on-gender-bias-in-science/)



    Why does the author suggest that “understanding of neurodiversity” only benefits men? All genders exhibit neurodiverse traits. Both women and men are subjectively seen as homogeous monoliths. And the ridicule of men who display vulnerability is squarely the provence of toxic masculinity — it’s completely unrelated to the social context of neurodiversity (though of course the neurodiverse among us may suffer from toxic masculinity to a greater degree).



    TL;DR: What an absolute crock of shit.

    • Officious Intermeddler says

      And the ridicule of men who display vulnerability is squarely the provence of toxic masculinity

      Please reconcile this claim with the observable fact that modern feminists are among the most vicious perpetrators of nerd-shaming. Is Jessica Valenti, for example, thrall to “toxic masculinity”?

      Speaking of absolute crocks of shit, and all.

  24. Winston says

    Can anyone share some top research on biology as a more predominant role in development vs culture? I’m interested in seeing some.

  25. This could be one of the best articles on the subject that I have ever read

  26. “There tends to be a hesitancy towards attributing any differences between people to any cause that is biological in origin”: unless the differences involve homosexuality, transgenderism, or the “evil of whiteness.”

  27. Why doesn’t the author touch on the empirical problem of women with ASD going undiagnosed (to begin your own research, see here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/autism-it-s-different-in-girls/)? It is unfounded to hand-wave away the disparity in tech by saying “oh, well it’s clearly these autism spectrum traits.” Frankly, it’s facile.



    Autism is defined by its traits so if you have to redefine it to include other traits just to bump up the number of girls with it you are left with something other than autism.

    Why does the author suggest that “understanding of neurodiversity” only benefits men?

    I missed that bit. Can you quote the exact bit which says this?

    All genders exhibit neurodiverse traits. Both women and men are subjectively seen as homogeous monoliths.

    Except the post goes to great lengths to emphasise that autistic traits are on a spectrum and there is no monolith.

    And the ridicule of men who display vulnerability is squarely the provence of toxic masculinity — it’s completely unrelated to the social context of neurodiversity (though of course the neurodiverse among us may suffer from toxic masculinity to a greater degree).



    Come back when you’ve Googled ‘male tears’ and then tell me how many hits are from male writers. A boy who expresses any emotion at all is likely to get more sympathy from a homophobic football coach than a feminist writer like Jessica Valenti or Julie ‘it’s good men who commit suicide have finally found something they are good at’ Burchill.

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