It takes one to know one!

He should know!

Was Steve Jobs Autistic?

This has gotten a lot of play since Steve Jobs died. You can also hear the text read in Steve’s own voice in this very moving tribute ceremony. His reading happens about 12 minutes into the video.

I’ve not seen anyone say they think Jobs was autistic, so I’ll say it. He did “think different” and he was often described as “mercurial” and he was creative. He was clearly a genius. Now, that doesn’t add up to a diagnosis, but it sure fits the profile! I’d love to hear what others think!

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

On The Financial Page of The New Yorker, October 17, 2011,  added fuel for my fire!  He points out, among other things:

  • As seemingly everyone on the planet knows, Steve Jobs’s defining quality was perfectionism.
  • …  Jobs’s obsession with detail.
  • … he got personally involved with things like how many screws there were in a laptop case.
Obsession with detail and perfectionism are also defining traits of autism.Then, Surowiecki notes, as Jobs matured, “… his obsession with control had been tempered: he was better, you might say, at playing with others …” That last phrase (in the negative) is one that is often used to describe autistic people. As is the attribute of being “controlling.” And, to be sure, there is an element of truth in both of these accusations, but the explanation for them is, I think, not often given correctly. We autistics, in my view, try to make our world orderly so that it is more predictable and comfortable for us. We do this not for the sake of control per se, but to calm our always jangled nerves. We “don’t play well with others” not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t comprehend the world that the other 97% of the people (who are not autistic) live in. So, try as we might, we just don’t seem to be able to do what is expected of us. And, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be too good (yet) at modifying their expectations to take our autism into account.
Update on 30 October:
Judith Ursitti drew my attention (via Facebook) to this wonderful tribute by his sister. Perfectionism and humility shine through.
Update, 3 November:
I saw another NYT article that adds fuel to my fire, without doing so explicitly. The author compares Jobs to Eintein, Gates, and Franklin, and mentions Jefferson in passing. All of these other people are candidates, in the minds of many, as potential examples of autistic people. There is also a very telling quote, “Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers.” This made me think of Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking In Pictures, and reminds me also of descriptions of our way of thinking by both John Elder Robison and me; in his case, in electronics, in my case, finance.
Additional comments, November 4:
I have shared the link to this post on Facebook, and there had the following exchange:

No, I don’t get autism…I get bipolar…but you are entitled to your opinion…
Have you read Kay Redfield Jamieson’s Touched with Fire?

Thank you — I got a brief summary and background online.

I will add that to my (rather lengthy) reading list. Since I was diagnosed (about 5 years ago), I have developed a huge appetite for learning about not just autism, but about neurology in general. The more I study this field, the more I become convinced that autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, ADHD, and other conditions are pretty much the same thing.

This belief was strengthened last week when I attended the annual Research Symposium of the Autism Consortium in Boston. One of the papers presented suggested that all of these conditions (and some others) are genetically indistinguishable. It’s possible that these labels, and differing diagnoses, are simply wrong — an artifice — or, it’s possible that they all spring from the same neurology but develop into different conditions for whatever reason during each person’s development.

As Pierre-Simon Laplace said, “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny, that of which we are ignorant is vast.)


And, in a wonderfully written blog post by Steve Silberman, entitled “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?” I found much to reflect on. He describes Jobs’s spiritual journey, and much of what I read sounds very familiar. Obviously, you don’t need to be autistic to “rewire your motherboard” but if you are autistic, that is especially important (and easy to do, if you put your mind to it).

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from this rather long and worthwhile post:

“To indulge in a little Buddhist jargon, the best Apple products seem like they suddenly appeared in emptiness (Śūnyatā), unencumbered by previous notions of what a “computer” or “phone” or “MP3 player” or “tablet device” should be. They were cosmically clean; avatars of the new.”

“Indeed, Jobs’ commitment to mindfully-crafted excellence extended even to aspects of his products that were invisible.  In Jony Ive’s smart and pointed eulogy for his best friend last week, the design chief reminisced about spending “months and months” with Jobs perfecting parts of Apple’s machines that most users would never see (“…with their eyes,” Ive then tellingly added.) “Steve believed that there was a gravity, almost a civic responsibility, to care way beyond any sense of functional imperative.” “

The first quote relates to the autistic tendency to do what neurotypicals call “think outside the box” (autistics tend not to be able to see any box, or boundaries), or to create things without regard to how things “have always been done” but instead to see a problem and to imagine a solution that does not rely on what has gone before.

The downside (perhaps) to this creativity is the compulsion to seek perfection, as alluded to in the second quotation. In this regard “autistic” and “artistic” become one. Years ago, when I toured Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the tour guide explained that there were works of art that we would never see because they were put in place even though the artists knew they would be hidden from view by later structural work. The reason given was that the artists believed that “God would see them.” At the time, I was amazed at the strength of religious faith that would inspire such devotion. Now, I am more inclined to believe that the artists were simply autistic!

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Colin’s Bedtime Reading

Another piece of Aspergerian Humor

Not that we have a monopoly on this kind of delusion! Still, based on my own experience and conversations with fellow autistics, it seems clear to me that, to an unusual degree, we really do expect the world to know what we are thinking.

Oh, don’t let us wander!

Sometimes I think every New Yorker cartoonist must be Aspergerian. Even so, I guess their humor must be universally appealing.

Here’s a great vignette of an Aspergerian quandary. We really do benefit from receiving explicit instructions!

Experiencing Irene

8 AM 28 August 2011

Amazingly, I still have power. I don’t expect that to last, and have plenty of snacks, books, and magazines on hand!

Just went out to feed the horses. They were not in their shed, but sheltering under a large spruce. As I approached, 3 deer behind them saw me, and bounded away. They had been eating the apples that the wind had knocked down! Silver liningists! The turkeys were about, but did not come running, as they usually do, when they saw me. Too many worms coming to the surface, I suppose!

We’ve already had 6 to 8 (maybe more) inches of rain, and my seasonal (spring-fed) stream, which had been totally dry just two weeks ago, is now gushing brown water in a volume I’ve never seen before in the 25 years I’ve been here.

The trees are bending more and more to the wind, and I’m sure this is a prelude. So far, not any worse than some of the nasty wind storms we’ve already had this year, but I know much stronger winds are on the way!

1 PM update

We lost power about 9:30 AM, and it was restored only a few minutes ago.

It is raining steadily, and the wind is still blowing, though I would not say I am worried about downed trees at this point.

The NOAA tracking cone still includes the Berkshires, with top steady winds forecast at 60 MPH. Still, the radar map shows the severe weather to be now located around Albany (about 30 miles west of me), and the rain now extends only down to the DC area.

It looks like it will end here within the next hour or two, and be done with. If so, the peak was early this morning here. I haven’t ventured outside since feeding the horses this morning, but will take a tour soon. In terms of rainfall, this has been the worst storm in my memory, but in terms of wind, we’ve had worse storms in the past few months. Still, it ain’t over till it’s over!

Autistics in the Workplace: Building Social Skills

Social Integration in the Workplace

Autistic Individuals Face Special Challenges

and also have Special Abilities


Remarks and Information

Prepared for Job Counselors of the

Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC)

July 25, 2011


NB: this is a work in progress, and is not to be quoted.

Your comments and suggestions are welcome and invited.


©2011 Michael Forbes Wilcox



“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

“The Answer to the Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”


From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams


I don’t know that question


The Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything is not something that comes trippingly off my tongue. I do think I know why you are all here today, however.


The great conundrum, as I understand it, facing the MRC is, why is it so easy to find jobs for Aspergerians (that is, people who, like me, have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), and so difficult for them to retain those jobs?


As an Aspergerian, my job, in the next few minutes, is to share with you some of the things I have learned over a long lifetime; I have held many jobs, I have lost many jobs. I know some of what works and some of what doesn’t. Maybe, just maybe, I can give you some pointers on advice you can give to your clients.


I have written much for you, as I’ve pondered this conundrum, and you have a copy of something I prepared just for today.


I won’t attempt to read the whole thing to you, because I want to give you the big picture, and leave time for you to ask me questions.


Topics That I Will Cover, If Lightly


Before I’m done, I hope to have time to say a few words about a whole bunch of things.

First, Some Vocabulary and Basic Terminology


Let me hasten to add that my opinions here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of any of the many organizations with which I am affiliated.


First: please! expel the word “unacceptable” from your vocabulary when you speak about the behavior of people with disabilities. Let it join that trash heap that now contains the word “retarded” and the phrase “mental retardation.” Instead of “unacceptable,” let us refer to “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors. You will see examples of what I mean when I later talk, or you read the reference I give you, about social skills in the workplace.


Likewise, strike the word “disorder” from your vocabulary. Disabilities are a normal part of the human condition. Many of us who are autistic believe that we represent a different order, not one that is better or worse. We believe in the concept of neurodiversity, meaning that autistics and non-autistics deserve to be treated as equals. If you haven’t already done so, read Jim Sinclair’s excellent piece, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” written in 1993 and just as relevant today as it was then.


When you speak of me, please do not refer to me as “a person with autism!” I am an autistic person. I know that the people who have advocated for “person first” language have done so to great advantage for many sectors of the disability community. Some self-advocates, however, have rejected specific aspects of an otherwise respectful approach to speaking about people with disabilities.


Blind people, for example, so not want to be called “people with blindness.” The deaf community is even more strident, and insist on being called “deaf” – not “people with deafness.”


Here, too, Jim Sinclair has some elegant words to express why autistics prefer to be called what we are: autistic.


I am right-handed. You would not call me a “person with right-handedness” – being right-handed, like being autistic, is part of who I am. There is nothing wrong with being left-handed (although not long ago, it was thought so; my partner, who is left-handed, grew up attending parochial schools in Springfield, and would be soundly rapped on the knuckles if she tried to write with her left hand in class). Being left-handed is a disability, however. Most tools are designed for use by right-handed people. If you are right-handed, have you ever tried to use left-handed scissors? I have. It isn’t easy.


Similarly, there is nothing wrong with being autistic, but this world was not designed for us. Autism is part of my identity. It is not something I can leave at the door when I enter a room full of non-autistics. It is not something I caught one time because I didn’t wash my hands, and it is not something that is going to go away. Nor would I want it to!


Okay, With All That Aside, Here Are My Words of Wisdom


I have provided you with a handout that contains the following items, and a web link to my blog for a more complete discussion. Also, you have my email address; I welcome any questions you may have that I don’t have time to address or answer today, or that may occur to you later.


  • Splinter Skills” – this is a term often used about autistics to describe how they may be very good at some things and very poor at others. Of course, this applies to all people, not just autistics, but it seems that we are perhaps blessed with an even more disparate set of skills than is true in the non-autistic population. [As an aside, we often affectionately refer to non-autistics as “neurotypicals” or NTs, and forgive them for their limited range of abilities, recognizing that it is just the way they were born; they can’t help it! 😉 ]
  • Years ago, Howard Gardner introduced the concept of multiple intelligences, but his insight has not had as much influence outside of the academic community as one might hope, since most people still seem to view the “IQ test” as the sine qua non of intelligence.
  • It turns out that the things that autistics are good at often requite an enormous attention to detail; library science, engineering, computers, and the like. The things we tend to be really bad at involves such things as social skills.
  • Emotional withdrawal: autistics have, in most cases, been told all their lives that they do things wrong. This can create great psychological harm, leading to severe depression at the extreme, or perhaps just to a reluctance to engage socially, for fear of being rebuked yet one more time. This reluctance to engage can be misinterpreted by NTs as coldness or non-interest, when in fact the person may very much want to join in, but just doesn’t know how to do it.
  • Lack of emotional regulation: autistics live in a world of logic. When things don’t go as they expect, or don’t make sense (a common occurrence when dealing with the NT world), they may appear to “fly off the handle” with rage, or experience some other form of a meltdown, resulting in complete withdrawal.
  • Literal-mindedness: this does not mean we are not good at figures of speech, metaphors, or puns. Most of us also have a highly developed sense of humor. What we lack is the ability to “read between the lines” – things must be spelled out step by step for us. Of course, it is also up to us to learn how to elicit missing information, but many of us do not recognize when that occurs.
  • Sensory Issues: Aspergerians share with all autistics an aversion to certain stimuli. This will vary from person to person. We all have something, but what bothers me may not bother another. Accommodations must be sought or created. This is connected with the issues of self-awareness and disclosure.
  • Not Wanting to be Different: this seems especially applicable to younger people.
  • Perspective-taking: the most difficult challenge for many autistic brains. And, the heart and soul of social skills. And, although this is inherent in us, it is not our natural place to go, so must be trained. The very most difficult thing for us to do is to see ourselves as others see us.


About Me


I’m autistic, and I’m proud of it! I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) late in life, and I’ve come to appreciate how special that makes me. I’ve always known I’m different, but I never comprehended how very different I am. Now that I understand the deficiencies of the neurotypical (NT) mind, I have become much more accepting of the 99% of people in the world who just don’t get it! They can’t help it, they were just born that way!


I say this in jest, because I tire of being told that I have a disorder, and that my way of doing things is somehow wrong.


I’m not disorderly, and there is nothing wrong with the way I do things. It is just different. I think differently, I do things differently. My way of thinking is perfectly cogent and internally consistent, even if it is incomprehensible to 99% of the population. So, stop telling me to change, stop telling me that I need to “fit in” and start accepting me for who I am.


Okay, great speech, but it ain’t gonna work! My natural way of being produces discomfort in most of the people I encounter in life. So, as a survival mechanism, I have needed to learn how to hide my differences, and to play their game. It’s hard work, and I don’t always succeed, but when the alternative is total rejection, there is a huge incentive to be able to fake it.


I’m told that many employment counselors are puzzled by their autistic clients. Someone who is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome may be clearly qualified academically in their field, and even have an impressive employment history (at least on paper). Yet, they may have difficultly securing employment. And, even more significantly, they may have a history of being unable to retain a job once they have been placed.


I have been asked to address the puzzle of why many Aspergerians appear to be highly qualified for employment, may even have a good-looking resumé, and yet have great difficulty in obtaining new employment, and perhaps even more puzzling, have a history of not lasting very long on a job, so that they are soon back on the hunt for employment. Obviously, helping these people find and retain good jobs would be beneficial for them, for their employers, and for their support network.


Let’s Figure Out What Is the Proper Question!


Superficially, the question is clear: why is it that autistic people have such great difficulty securing and retaining jobs for which they are clearly qualified?


The answer to that question, however, is quite simple. They lack the social skills that are expected in the NT world. Neurotypicals, because of the way their brains are wired, easily acquire the social skills they need in order to “fit in” to NT culture; autistic people often complain that everyone else seems to know the rules, but no one has given us a copy of the rulebook!


Is this because of some deficiency in the neurology of autistics? No, not in my view. When I am in a room full of autistic people, I can relax and behave naturally, since everyone else will understand me, and I will know what is expected. If I am talking and someone interrupts me, I can switch gears and go with the new train of thought without resentment, or I can tell them to stop interrupting me and continue with my own exposition, and no one will think either one of us is being rude.


Once, when I was giving a presentation to a fairly large audience of Aspergerians, a young woman in the back row shouted out, “Get out of my head!” I took that as a great compliment. We do understand each other, the way NTs understand each other. But it’s very difficult to be bilingual. For the most part, NTs don’t try, unless they are therapists or in a relationship with someone who is autistic.


On the other hand, autistics are expected to learn what is expected in the NT world, and, quite frankly, to be successful in it, they need to do just that.


So, rather than ask the easily-answered question of “Why?” let’s move on to a “How?” question, along the lines of “How can autistic people learn social skills and develop strategies for navigating the shoals of a world that is inherently incomprehensible?”




When talking about myself, I use “Aspergerian” and “autistic” pretty much interchangeably, my choice depends on the context or my mood. All Aspergerians are autistic, but not the other way around. There is great value to the Asperger label, in my experience. It tends to be less stigmatizing (although I wish that weren’t true), and it helps conjure up a image that may be helpful to others in forming their expectations.


The other advantage of the Asperger label is that it has helped unite a community and created an opportunity for many people to gain understanding and support. I know the Asperger community has been a huge help to me over the past few years.


Still, we all know that individuals are unique, and there are plenty of people who have not received the AS diagnosis who can benefit from learning about the skills I mention in this discussion, just as there may be Aspergerians who, for unrelated reasons, may not be in a position to enter the workforce.


So, although people with the AS and closely-related diagnoses may represent the majority of autistic people you encounter, the very same skill set discussed here can also benefit anyone who is autistic. All autistics have much more in common with each other than they do with the NT world.


Reasons Autistics have Difficulty with Social Integration in the Workplace


The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to give a flavor for the challenges facing autistics as they try to do what is expected of them in the workplace. These items are also not presented in any particular order, since they all interact with each other, and in some cases are just different ways of saying the same thing.


[1] “Splinter Skills” is a term used to describe people (not necessarity autistics) who appear to have very different skill levels in different aspects of life.


This is closely related to Howard Gardner’s concept of “multiple intelligences” – a theory that he began developing in the 1980s and which came into full bloom in the 1990s, and is considered by many to have been a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about intelligence [q.v. Kuhn, Thomas, S., “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Second Edition, Enlarged, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970 (1962) which itself was a paradigm-shifting piece of work!].


What Gardner pointed out, in essence, is that intelligence cannot be measured on a single scale; we all have talents in multiple areas, and we are not necessarily equally adept at each of these skills.


I have a friend who uses the term “dull normal” when referring to NTs, as in “would you rather be weird or dull normal?” My friend John Robison has talked about his belief that NTs tend to have a similar intelligence level in most areas, whereas autistics seem to have variable intelligence levels, being very good at some things (such as he was at electrical engineering), and very bad at others (such as social skills).


Despite the acceptance of Gardner’s ideas in the academic world, his paradigm shift has not entered many areas of practice. We still use a single scale of intelligence, for example, to define who is eligible for services from DDS.


[2] Autistics carry the burden of a lifetime of being told “you’re doing it wrong.” This can lead to a fear of social interactions with their potential for rejection, and may inhibit autistics from sharing their thoughts.


All of this may give others the impression that autistic people are shy, uninterested in friendship or social involvement, and prefer to be left alone. This is usually not true; it is just that they don’t know how to initiate the interaction.


[3] Lack of emotional regulation – “flying off the handle” or panicking.


Monotonic emotional presentation – the inability to emote may give off the (false) impression of being “cold” or uncaring, incapable of empathy.


All of this may be a result of or perhaps lead to withdrawal and depression.


[4] Literal mindedness: this does not imply the inability to understand metaphor and figures of speech; rather to not being able to “read between the line” and make inferences. We do not know, as NTs seem to, that “B” ALWAYS follows “A” so that telling an NT to “do A” is equivalent to saying “do A and B” – the autistic person will do “A” and stop, leaving the boss to wonder why they are being uncooperative (or stupid).


Solutions: [A] we must be given a specific task list OR told what the objective is, rather than how to achieve it. (Don’t “box us in” if you want us to “think outside the box” – a concept most of us don’t understand anyway!)


[B] We must learn to solicit information when we suspect we are not being given the whole picture.


[5] Sensory integration/regulation issues – e.g. continuous or loud noise, bright lights, etc. may be totally distracting or even lead to physical reactions and distress.


It is in the interest of employers to provide reasonable accommodation where they are needed, in order to maximize the productivity of each employee. This platitude, however, is often honored in the breach.


In my days in the job market, long before I understood the concept of accommodations, or even knew that I needed them, I found clever ways to create them for myself.


For example, I learned early on that, for me, the rush-hour scene was especially stressful. The crowds, the noise, the delays all distressed me.


My first “real” job came to me while I was living in Springfield in the late 1960s; I got a job as a computer programmer for an insurance company in Bloomfield, Connecticut. At the time, I was attending AIC in Springfield at night, working toward my bachelor’s degree.


I would often arrive home at 10 o’clock or so, attempt to do some homework, have some conversation with my wife, maybe watch some late-night TV to help me unwind, and end up hitting the sack around midnight. All of that made it quite challenging to get on the road in time to be at work by 8 o’clock, given that I lived about a 40-minute drive from my office.




[6] Not WANTING to be different. Especially true among the younger crowd.


Antidote: knowledge –> understanding –> acceptance


Self-acceptance can’t be imposed, and needs to be preceded by the first two.


Those who are autistic do not intuit how very different they are.


[7] Perspective-taking. Flows from [6].




Social Thinking At Work, by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, 2011,


Asperger’s on the Job, by Rudy Simone, 2010, Future Horizons, Inc.


















In memory of Lori Bonatakis, on the third anniversary of her Memorial Service

Today, I am in mourning for my friend Lori, on this, the third anniversary of her Memorial Service.

Here is a short photo-essay that I did at the time.

I am also mourning the presumed loss of her cat, Taffy, who has been living at my house for the past three years.

I last saw Taffy two weeks ago, doing what she loved to do; roaming my yard, stalking some invisible (and perhaps imaginary) creature through the grass.

Here is the last picture I took of her:

Taffy at Thyme Hill

I know there are many instances of cats being absent for long periods of time and then reappearing, but in my heart I feel she is gone forever. I loved her dearly; she was a sweet cat. She was also a reminder to me of the days I would go to visit Lori, and Taffy would jump into my lap and purr.

My only consolation is that I know she had a wonderful three years here at Thyme Hill, exploring my large yard and the adjacent territory. I don’t know how far afield she went, but my hunch is that she never went very far from home. She will be missed.


Quote for the Day: US Foreign Policy

One reaction among liberals to the Bush years and to Iraq was to retreat from “idealism” toward “realism,” in which the United States would act cautiously and, above all, according to national interest rather than moral imperatives. The debate is rooted in the country’s early history. American, John Quincy Adams argued, “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all,” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own.”

In 1966, Adam’s words were repeated by George Kennan, perhaps the most articulate realist of the twentieth century, in opposing the Vietnam War. To Kennan and his intellectual followers, foreign-policy problems are always more complicated than Americans, in their native idealism, usually allow. The use of force to stop human-rights abuses or to promote democracy, they argue, usually ends poorly.

From the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, page 44, in an article by Ryan Lizza.