This topic was suggested to me by a coworker after it came up in a discussion of Rudy Simone’s book Asperger’s On The Job. I strongly recommend this book to aspies who work or are seeking work, as well as their advocates and prospective employers. I think Rudy has done a great job of presenting the issues as well as practical ways we can all work together to address them.
In chapter 4, Rudy discusses the aspie tendency toward bluntness and perfectionism, and near the bottom of page 20, she brings up what many describe as “Asperger arrogance.” I’d like to point out that her placement of these three topics in the same chapter is no coincidence. They are related.
Before I dive in, I’d like to take a moment to define “arrogance,” as I think it is important to understand exactly what I’m talking about. Merriam-Webster defines “arrogance” as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” Notice that it is defined mainly in terms of behavior.
In my very first post, I listed some of the characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome, as presented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. One of those characteristics was “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” A person who is unable to use nonverbal behaviors to regulate social interaction is very likely to say or do things that are inappropriate for a given situation. Combine that with a tendency toward blunt honesty and an eye for problems that need solving, and I think it’s easy to see how such a person could seem overbearing and presumptuous. That said, Rudy points out that “we are often devastated to find that we have hurt someone’s feelings,” and that, “it is not for selfish reasons that the AS person will do this, it is merely to help.”
I believe that we (human beings) dislike arrogance because we dislike the idea that others believe themselves to be superior to us. Specifically, I believe that we dislike the idea that others believe themselves to be of greater worth. So, I think the question is whether the “Asperger arrogance” comes from an actual belief in one’s superiority, or from a lack of social awareness combined with a sincere desire to help.
As she continues into page 21, Rudy mentions that “a recent study by the Department of Neuropsychiatry at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo found that ‘Individuals with Asperger’s disorder have higher fluid reasoning ability than normal individuals, highlighting superior fluid intelligence.'” She continues on to say that “This may explain why those with AS often feel superior to those around them who do not possess the same kind of intellectual abilities.” Well, there it is! Aspies really do feel superior to everyone else and really are arrogant jerks, right? No, I don’t think so, and I don’t believe that’s what Rudy is saying.
I’ve taken a lot of tests in my life, but one of the most memorable was a colossal failure. The test measured a specific aspect of brain function, and my score was 6.5 standard deviations below normal. That’s really, really low. Three standard deviations below normal would be worse than 99.7% of the population; 6.5 is almost unfathomable. The bottom line is that it’s a sure bet that your brain works far better than mine in this particular area. It’s a huge weakness for me. I think most adult aspies are keenly aware of their weaknesses. Our weaknesses certainly do account for a lot of the discussion in the aspie forums where I am active. I think we are also keenly aware of our strengths, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Some time ago, our IT department took the Strengths Finder assessment. If you are unfamiliar with this, I recommend visiting www.strengthsfinder.com. The basic idea is that a person is more effective when maximizing their strengths rather than focusing on overcoming weaknesses. The assessment tells you your 5 greatest strengths out of 35 defined in the book Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath. Mine are ideation, intellection, learner, strategic, and context. For those unfamiliar with Strengths Finder, here is a brief description of each:
- ideation – generating ideas
- intellection – examining and refining ideas
- learner – taking in new knowledge and ideas
- strategic – figuring out how to best use ideas and resources
- context – examining how things have worked in the past and applying that to understanding the present
Anyone seeing a theme here? Ideation, intellection, and strategic are practically the definition of fluid intelligence. I do believe that I’m strong in these areas, but I’m also very much aware of my weaknesses. Like most human beings, I want my strengths to be seen and valued, but my weaknesses are mostly related to interacting with others. As Rudy said in her book, I am often devastated to find that I have hurt someone’s feelings. I do not believe myself to be better than any other person in general. In fact, I struggle often with feelings of worthlessness. At the end of the chapter, Rudy points out that, “If those abilities are not recognized, it can leave a person with AS feeling unfulfilled, unutilized, unappreciated, and resentful.” Her statement here matches with what I’ve read in Strengths Finders, which leads me to believe that aspies are really no different in this area than other human beings. I believe that our social struggles tend to make it difficult for others to really see and appreciate our strengths.
In the end, I believe that understanding the social struggles that come with Asperger’s syndrome can make life much better for aspie employees and their employers. When in doubt, talk things out.