Elon Musk revealed this month that he has Asperger's syndrome. He may have known that his whole life, or he may have learned it relatively recently, as recognition and diagnosis of this mild form of autism have grown in recent years. Whether you know it or not, there's a chance that Asperger's may be affecting some of your employees, colleagues, friends, or family members as well. It's even possible that you could have it yourself without realizing it. If you suspect this might be true of you or someone you know, online self-tests can provide some initial answers.
Musk made his announcement while hosting Saturday Night Live. It was the first time an SNL host announced being on the autism spectrum during a monologue, although not the first time someone with Asperger's hosted the show--Dan Aykroyd, who has Asperger's, hosted in 2003. While some viewers were surprised to learn that Musk is an "Aspie," I was mainly surprised that he had never mentioned it before. It seems obvious, if you know anything about him, that he is on the autism spectrum. Right there in the monologue, he mentioned an array of easily recognized Asperger's signs, starting with his opening lines.
"It's an honor to be hosting Saturday Night Live. I mean that," he began. "Sometimes when I say something, I have to say 'I mean that' so that people really know that I mean it. That's because I don't always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak ... which I'm told makes for great comedy." He went on to say that he has Asperger's. "So I won't make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But don't worry, I'm pretty good at running 'human' in emulation mode."
There are plenty of other Asperger's characteristics that he didn't mention but has clearly displayed. People with Asperger's are known to have interests that become obsessions (check). They are often fascinated by machines (triple check). They often are socially awkward (yup). They lack empathy and may not understand conventional social rules, which might explain Musk's bizarre decision to call a leader of the Thai cave rescue "pedo guy" in a tweet, which got him sued. And, according to the Autism Society, most people with Asperger's have average-to-above-average intelligence.
There are a lot of Aspies out there
In recent years, more and more adults in the general population have discovered that they have Asperger's. This may be because the syndrome is growing more common or--more likely--because mental health professionals are learning to recognize it better. That second explanation makes sense because the other name for Asperger's (one many people prefer) is autism spectrum disorder. Since the spectrum goes from very mild to very severe, it seems natural that the condition would be harder to recognize at the mild end. In fact, one of the world's leading authorities on autism failed to recognize Asperger's in his own son until that son was in his 30s. Some experts say it's particularly likely to go unrecognized in girls and women since most autism research has focused on men and boys.
I know all this because of my husband, Bill. Just over a year ago, he was watching videos about mild autism when he realized they were describing him. Like many people who suspect that they have Asperger's, Bill did not seek a medical diagnosis, which wouldn't have served much practical purpose anyhow. Instead, he took several of the self-tests available online, all of which indicated that he was on the spectrum. He also sought advice from a friend who works with autistic teenagers. She not only agreed with his self-diagnosis, she told him she'd suspected it for a long time.
What should you do if you think that someone you work with--or someone in your family--might have Asperger's? Begin by rethinking how you communicate with that person, particularly if he or she is an employee. Be specific rather than abstract. For example, "Please sort the pile of papers on your desk and put them in folders," is better than "Please neaten up your workspace." And you're better off asking them to focus on one thing at a time, rather than giving them a list of tasks. My learning this has made life with my husband somewhat easier for both of us.
A test for empathy
If you suspect that you or a loved one might have Asperger's, there are quite a few online tests you can take, although none of them can give you a real diagnosis, and their effectiveness depends on the honesty and thoughtfulness of your answers. One place to start is the Empathy Quotient, developed at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University and used as part of a diagnosis by mental health professionals. As the test's creators note, different people have different levels of empathy, whether or not they are on the autism spectrum, so this test may give you a general indication but not a definitive answer. (After this piece came out, a reader alerted me to the Aspie Quiz, which is also a great resource.)
Whatever you do, keep in mind that Asperger's is not necessarily a bad thing to have. Besides Aykroyd, the movie star Daryl Hannah and the British singer Susan Boyle have publicly said they've been diagnosed with the condition. Musk, of course, is one of the world's two richest people, and it's probably no coincidence that he has Asperger's and is a highly successful tech entrepreneur. Temple Grandin, who is famous for her autism and autism advocacy, believes that Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs had Asperger's, and that the same is true of many of today's tech icons, though she won't name names while they are alive.
She and other experts believe that Asperger's can be an advantage for entrepreneurs. Why? Because their blindness to social rules and conventions can free them to flout those rules and try new things. Also, as she told Inc.'s Kimberly Weisul, "People with Asperger's tend to get fixated on their favorite thing, and their favorite thing could be starting a business. That would be really a good thing."