An Autistic Ethos: It’s All About Respect

Cool Hand LukeI have been privy to conversation among sexually active librarians in which catalogers, above all other sub-specialties of librarianship, were identified—with good humor but still in earnest—as being “virtually unfuckable.”  Harsh words and far from true, but it’s a judgment that does speak to the widely held perception among librarians that catalogers as a rule do not recognize and respond to social cues as readily and competently as do their colleagues with other, different specialties.  The cataloger’s career is not about serving patrons or being a people person.  It is about the sorting and classifying of information; systems upon systems—yes, such as the Dewey Decimal—are the catalogers’ happy hunting grounds.  They were the first people I thought of when I came across this passage from Tyler Cowen:

One strong feature of autism is the tendency of autistics to impose additional structure on information by the acts of arranging, organizing, classifying, collecting, memorizing, categorizing, and listing. Autistics are information lovers to an extreme degree and they are the people who engage with information most passionately.

Catalogers are of course rarely sighted outside of libraries or museums; in most organizations it is the Information Technology (IT) staff who are most intimately involved with the organization and manipulation of information. Regular readers know I am fond of pointing out that “Nowadays, even a computer geek/nerd can get laid,” as evidence that the autistic cognitive style is coming into its own socially, thanks to the ever-increasing importance of computer culture in the workplace and elsewhere.  The still poorly understood cognitive style of the IT department is as it happens the subject of a widely-shared article by Jeff Ello which appeared last September at Computerworld.  I’d like to run through Ello’s piece, The unspoken truth about managing geeks, to see what lessons can be applied back to understanding and working with the autistic cognitive style in general. As most of us are not in managerial positions where we oversee or represent IT workers, the larger picture I want to pick up on here is the way our assumptions about other cultures (including workplace cultures) can actually elicit the stereotypical behavior that we’ve been assuming comes unbidden from the people who display it.  This is something Mr. Ello claims to have seen repeatedly and at close hand; “My career,” he explains, “has been stippled with a good bit of disaster recovery consulting, which has led me to deal with dozens of organizations on their worst day, when opinions were pretty raw.” The article opens as follows; I invite you to read with the word “autism” substituted for the terms “IT” and “Geeks.”

I can sum up every article, book and column written by notable management experts about managing IT [autism] in two sentences: “Geeks [autistics] are smart and creative, but they are also egocentric, antisocial, managerially and business-challenged, victim-prone, bullheaded and credit-whoring. To overcome these intractable behavioral deficits you must do X, Y and Z.” X, Y and Z are variable and usually contradictory between one expert and the next, but the patronizing stereotypes remain constant.

Autistics are of course often identified as being egotistic and antisocial, and that last sentence especially should ring bells with anyone who has tried to sort through the multitude of contradictory and too-often patronizing recommendations on offer for “overcoming” autism’s “intractable behavioral deficits.”  Ello again would be no stranger to the high emotion that accompanies these recommendations; he continues, “I’ve heard all of the above-mentioned stereotypes and far worse, as well as [a] good bit of rage.  The worse shape an organization is in, the more you hear the stereotypes thrown around.” How is it then that these stereotypes are actually elicited by those who feel so justified in throwing them around? It is worth noting here that the occasion of the IT department may well be the first in modern history where those with an autistic cognitive style have been able to wield any sort of collective power, to control access to a resource that is increasingly critical to those who in turn control money and power, and to develop a culture on a scale that remains consistently identifiable across time and geography.  These traits arguably make it a new thing under the sun, though Ello finds that IT has parallels with medicine, another field where problem-solving skills are necessarily valued over social competence or bedside manner. Ello in fact brings up the example of television’s maverick diagnostician, Gregory House, M.D.  “I think every good IT pro on the planet idolizes Dr. House,” Ello claims—and fans will remember the episode from season three which touched on the ambiguity of whether Dr. House “is” or “is not” in fact autistic.  House is of course a lone wolf who because of his superior competence in the workplace is by turns respected or tolerated by his more socially-oriented colleagues.  When it comes to IT though, we are talking about a culture, a realm in which everyone is on the same page in terms of social versus workplace priorities.  The currency of that realm, according to Ello, is respect.

Gaining respect is not a matter of being the boss and has nothing to do with being likeable or sociable; whether you talk, eat or smell right; or any measure that isn’t directly related to the work. The amount of respect an IT pro pays someone is a measure of how tolerable that person is when it comes to getting things done, including the elegance and practicality of his solutions and suggestions. IT pros always and without fail, quietly self-organize around those who make the work easier, while shunning those who make the work harder, independent of the organizational chart.

This is, I suggest, every bit as much an autistic ethos as it is an IT ethos.  The only significant difference is that unlike autistic people in general, IT pros occupy a position of power from which consequences fall upon those who fail to respect that ethos—this lack of respect in fact is how the oh-so-intractable stereotypical behaviors are elicited. Ello’s advice about how to fix this problem is specific to corporate culture and difficult to unpack in a small space, but let’s just see what happens if we rewrite the final sentence from that last paragraph:

Autistics always and without fail, quietly organize around those who make communication easier, while shunning those who make communication harder.

I certainly vastly prefer and have greater respect for associates who can be blunt and direct, rather than ones who treat communication as if it were some sort of elaborate, nuanced fan language requiring constantly shifting interpretations—and I recognize this preference as an autistic trait. Note at any rate how this ethos shifts the burden of action and the flow of respect:  if we are failing to communicate with an autistic person, it is we who must change our behavior in order to earn respect and gain access.  As Ello sums up, “As I said at the very beginning, it’s all about respect.  If you can identify and cultivate those individuals and processes that earn genuine respect from [autistics], you’ll have a great … team.” For every librarian who has ever lusted after a hot cataloger, I can’t imagine that the path to success there is really any different.  Go team. Finally, I would point out that the opposite of a great IT team here is a disabled IT team.  Mr. Ello has introduced the idea of disability as an imposed condition mistaken for an inherent quality, as something visited upon people from without, not from within.  If IT staff can be effectively disabled by being forced to work under expectations that are contrary to the ethos that makes them effective as a team, perhaps it is time to consider that autistics in general are routinely disabled by expectations that are contrary to the ethos that makes them effective—both as lovers and as human beings.

related:  Greetings, members of NATO. We are Anonymous.

on 01/8/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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