Jueves 11 de Abril de 2002, Ip nº 12

The silence of the lambs
Por Steve Silberman

In the book "The Asperger syndrome: a guide for parents", psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor abilities, seem to be incapable of decoding body language and perceiving anybody else's feelings, avoid eye contact and often embark on highly specific monologues, usually on scientific issues.

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The Asperger syndrome is one of many disorders within the autism range, except it is less serious. Those who suffer from the Asperger syndrome have an average IQ, while 70% of autism sufferers in general have some kind of mental retardation. Affected people can read, write and talk: they will be able to live and work on their own when they grow old.

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It is a habitual joke in the cybernetic industry to state that a large number of programmers working for companies such as Intel, Adobe and Silicon Graphics - who go to work at dusk, leave around midnight and spend their days in a cubicle sipping gigantic sodas while they program - suffer from the Asperger syndrome. We can often find a sort of tacit diagnosis of these disorders in every interview to Bill Gates: his obsessive focus on technical details, his usual swinging backward and forward, his fix voice tone, it all suggests the presence of the syndrome.

During the last decade the number of children who suffer from autism in California is considered to have increased remarkably. In August 1993 autism cases added up to 4911, excluding the Asperger syndrome's victims; in July 2001 there were 15.441. Since then, seven children daily augment the disease's numbers. The area in California where this progression is centralized is Silicon Valley.

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Social blessing or rejection are out of the question: if a program turns up to be successful, no one will point out the fact that its programmer has used the same shirt for two weeks in a row. People with autism dread task multiplicity, such as in face to face communication.

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The crushing produced by hierarchy at work is actually a relief for those who cannot pick up the rules of social protocol.

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Of course, this is not an exclusive phenomenon of Silicon Valley. It has even been suggested that the NASA is the greatest exponent of these kind of institutions.

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"Intelligent robot" is a metaphor many autistic people use to describe their thinking processes. They have even adopted a word to refer to the rest of humanity: the "neurotypical".

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In a different historical moment, these men would have become monks, and they would have worked on the development of new inks for the first prints. Today, they make fortunes and are shareholders of the companies they work for.

It is no news that most autistic children's parents are engineers and programmers with clear symptoms of autism themselves.

Autism makes us confront essential issues such as are point of regarding talent and disability.

This is probably the utmost challenge for Silicon Valley's hackers: to break the genetic code that make those people so good at their job.


  15/03/2002. Radar Magazine.


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