Asperger’s syndrome and tacit expertise

An article ran yesterday in the Times about Asperger’s syndrome, what some describe as a form of high-functioning autism. Wired magazine ran a similar piece a few years back under the title, The Geek Syndrome. It makes a case that the social “blindness” that characterizes many of us in technical professions may have a neurological basis.

I could pick out a number of incidents in my past to make my own case for suffering from Asperger’s. One that comes to mind is an early programming job, where I turned into the team debugging specialist. Other team members would leave me candy and core dumps to debug. I finally tracked down one especially tough bug and grabbed the phone to call Glenn, my boss, and tell him the good news. Glen was very kind. He listened to my excited description of my detective process before he gently explained that he and his wife generally thought that 2 o’clock in the morning was a more appropriate time for sleeping than listening to status updates from young programmers.

There is an interesting side dimension to this condition that nicely illustrates one of the key differences between tacit and explicit knowledge. If you do tend to be blind to social cues that most people pick up naturally, one compensating strategy is to develop a series of explicit rules for operating in social situations. You train yourself to pay attention consciously to the clues that most people have forgotten that they use. On the plus side, you develop observational skills you can take advantage of. On the down side, you have to work through the rules to decide how to behave. Your performance is slower and never as expert or fluid as those whose knowledge is tacit.

Answer, but No Cure, for a Social Disorder That Isolates Many. Thousands of adults who have never fit in socially are only now stumbling across a neurological explanation for their struggles. By Amy Harmon. [New York Times: Science][free registration required]