About that famous “Asperger arrogance”…

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.



Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Aspie strengths, Communication, Social Interaction, Work

12 responses to “About that famous “Asperger arrogance”…

  1. Lisa Monzon

    This post really touched a nerve for me, Carlyle. I’ve been called a clod and insensitive a number of times in my life, and I have spent countless hours feeling horrible over things that have come tumbling out of my mouth. Now, I generally don’t say things as soon as they hit my brain. I stop, I analyze, and then, if it feels appropriate, I say it. I know my husband’s family generally views me as shy, awkward, and unsocial. I don’t really feel that I can overcome those views – it’s too late to change their views. I have tremendous empathy for people, but as you likely know all too well, it’s difficult for me to express myself in emotional situations. I have the Strength Finders book, but haven’t read it yet. I feel a complete lack of hope that I will ever be able to work again, but perhaps the book can turn that around for me. Thank you for being you.

  2. Your post was like a lightbulb going off for me…. and I can not thank you enough for this. I have been forced out of jobs, persecuted by my neighbours and vilified by people who I thought were my friends since they all perceived me as “arrogant” because I didn’t understand why they didn’t get “it”… and I always just wanted to help and did not understand that it made them feel inferior so they lashed out by saying or doing horrible things – classic is a person I thought was my friend who decided not to hand in assignments for me, pretend that the floppy disks I had put out strategic action plan on for a class had been wiped (it took my over a week to re-type the entire project), handed in the wrong video for a communications class… all in an effort to make sure i failed (which she quite clearly succeeded at) all because, as she told me later “I hated that fact that even though you were my best friend, you were arrogant and everything came so easily. I only stuck with you because I knew I would get an A in any assignment project I did with you, but otherwise, you got what you deserved.”

    Thank you for explaining it and I will go check out the Strength Finders site too. I can’t thank you enough.

  3. Kristen

    If anyone thinks Carlyle is arrogant, it’s because they haven’t gotten to know him at all. He is very aware of his limitations and because of that, I find him to be more humble than even remotely arrogant. I think being his wife makes me an expert on the matter! 🙂 I’m wondering how many know he has a Masters Degree in Education, because he certainly doesn’t flaunt it. I’m also wondering how many know that he won a full scholarship out of high school because of his SAT scores. Most who know he was in the Navy have no idea he graduated from Nuclear Power School, which is widely acknowledged as having the most demanding academic program in the U.S. military. Those who know his arm is paralyzed, did you know he taught himself how to walk again after his accident? My point is he doesn’t focus on his accomplishments and he would never intentionally make another person feel as though they are beneath him. He has a gift to teach and help others understand things in ways I’ve never imagined. Lastly, I want to say that Carlyle lacks confidence in numerous areas and will not speak out of step. If Carlyle is speaking on a topic and appears confident, you better believe he has researched it and then researched his research. A friend told him once that when he speaks, people listen. I think that’s important because Carlyle doesn’t speak unless he is confident in what he is saying. Ok, so the proud wife is stepping off her pedestal. =)

  4. I had a very lengthy comment written here, and when I went to switch log-in information, the whole thing was deleted, so I’ll make this short in a feeble attempt to keep my frustration at bay. 🙂

    A peculiar thing happens when I read your blog posts. I find myself pinpointing characteristics in people that I am drawn toward, as well as drawn away from. While evaluating myself, it turns out I wish more of my friends were Aspies. LOL! Really, the honesty that emanates from you and others with A.S., even while others can’t handle it, find it arrogant, or offensive or what have you, is really attractive to me. Why? More than likely it’s because I have never flourished in the company of individuals who are reserved, and I don’t even had autism as a cause for this. I have been good at reading people my entire life, so when I find someone who is very reserved, I am usually more put off by their reservation than by pure blunt communication, even if it is rude or ostentatious. I have an extremely difficult time growing friendships with people who smile all the time, offer too many kind words, or have high-pitched voices. (I just got a whole lot more interesting, huh? LOL!!!)

    This comment wasn’t supposed to be about me at all, you see. I’m stuck in this introspection, and I might be here for a while. It’s good, though. I like to be challenged by you.

    I can’t say any more than I have been saying about Aspies since I have known you for the past few years: I like Aspies. I just do. They’re the kinds of people you have to dig through, and every time you pull up a pile of rocks or dirt with a big shovel, if you take some time to carefully check out even the varieties of rock sizes and what most people consider to be “waste,” you end up finding jewels. Rare, precious, character-building jewels. That pretty much sums it up. But hey… who wants to dig, right? Ya might get yer hands dirty! It might take some time.

    So what? Love takes time. If you want it, you can also show it — or at least try to learn how to.

    To be more frank, and say some more things I did not intend to say in my “rehearsed [but deleted] comment,” I believe that coupled with the love of Christ, most Aspies would make excellent preachers.

  5. I recall my mother complaining to me as a child that it was annoying that I was so “self righteous” , I wish I had the word skills the then to explain that to her that of course I believed my thoughts were right because if they were wrong I would change them…and when I find out I am wrong I do…..(then I’m right again) . My comments to her about things my peers did that I thought were bad and mean were not meant to set myself above them but to try and get her to explain them to me . My peers also found it very annoying when I would tell them that it wasn’t nice to say mean things about others and seemed shocked to find out that I wasn’t avoiding them because I thought I was better but because I thought they would not like me . Some of my bosses seem to believe that I am trying to steal their jobs if I dare to make a suggestion . I believe most of the misconceptions about aspies is based on NT projection of NT motives onto us that have nothing to do with what our intentions, goals or needs .

    With all these signs of “arrogance”, I have still managed to feel so badly for my many flaws and faults that I have been depressed and anxious most of my life .

    • Kristen

      Denise – I completely agree with your statement: “I believe most of the misconceptions about aspies is based on NT projection of NT motives onto us that have nothing to do with what our intentions, goals or needs”. I’m an NT and I think we misjudge so many situations based on feelings or our own insecurities versus facts and logic.

  6. Brian G.

    Wow – I’m amazed at how similar my own strengthsfinder results were:

    1) Ideation
    2) Strategic
    3) Input
    4) Intellection
    5) Context

    Are you an INTP like me? I’d be curious to see someone calculate the correlations between Meyer-Briggs, Strengthsfinder, and Autism.

    I use my analytical abilities to calculate what people are feeling and then calculate how to act, and the more I learn, the more rapid and in depth my understanding becomes.

    If I didn’t care about others, I’d instead be using my knowledge to calculate how to exploit people, but I use it to go the other way.

    I am aware that if I simply say whatever I am feeling, I end up being very blunt. So I intentionally go to the other extreme, by being as careful and diplomatic as I can, because I care about people’s feelings.

    Not that Aspies can’t be arrogant – they can, but that’s just because they are human. NTs can be arrogant too, but being socially adept, every one else ends up liking them more and jockeying for their favor (think of jocks and cheerleaders). And the arrogant NTs know how to manipulate people better because of it.

    • I am an INTP, and I work to understand people in much the same way. I’m betting there is a correlation. I’d be interested in seeing someone research that, too.

      • Kristen

        Wow, are we sure you two weren’t separated at birth? The similarities are incredible. I’d be interested in seeing what happens if your two minds got together and did some research. =)

  7. Micah

    Well now… I completely forgot you had a blog. I have a lot to read!

  8. My best friend has come into calling me pedantic, rather then arrogant. In the end if I seem to act like I know everything about a topic, be assured that 1 I know a lot about the topic and 2 I have read your arguments, the rebuttals to those arguments, the rebuttals to those rebuttals and so on quite intensely. I have learned to bite my tongue from time to time and verbalize the merit I see in various points, but by and large I am unapologetic.

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