Asperger’s and Innovative Thinking

innovative thinking

Credit: Kay Kim

World Autism Awareness Day was on Thursday, something I learned from its presence in my social media feeds… Which led me to an interesting Washington Post article that discusses Asperger’s, a form of autism associated with difficulties in social interaction and communication.

In “Why shades of Asperger’s Syndrome are the secret to building a great tech company,” writer Matt McFarland examines the founders of innovative companies, describing them as “rebels” and independent thinkers without regard for social customs. He discusses Mark Zuckerberg and other socially-awkward tech innovators, pointing to traits reminiscent of Asperger’s. McFarland says these traits free them from an attachment to social conventions, allowing them to create game-changing businesses amid a culture that discourages daring entrepreneurship. He goes on to quote tech investor Peter Theil:

“Many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s where it’s like you’re missing the imitation, socialization gene,” Thiel said Tuesday at George Mason University. “We need to ask what is it about our society where those of us who do not suffer from Asperger’s are at some massive disadvantage because we will be talked out of our interesting, original, creative ideas before they’re even fully formed. Oh that’s a little bit too weird, that’s a little bit too strange and maybe I’ll just go ahead and open the restaurant that I’ve been talking about that everyone else can understand and agree with, or do something extremely safe and conventional.”

McFarland also discusses other Asperger’s traits such as obsessiveness and first-principle thinking, drawing similarities to a code-obsessed Bill Gates and creative thinker Elon Musk.

While reading this article, I was reminded of the Bell Telephone Lecture we watched in class, and our discussions on unlearning, disruptive technology, and thinking differently. I think this author draws an interesting correlation between these methods of thought and characteristics of Asperger’s. And I agree that people I know with Asperger’s are some of the most intelligent and interesting thinkers I’ve ever met. But I also think the writer takes way too many liberties in diagnosing a slew of famous innovators as having “shades of Asperger’s.” (He is indeed a tech blogger, not a doctor.) Even the headline’s “secret to building a great tech company” (!!!) is a bit too sensationalist for me. There are some interesting ideas here, but overall, I think the generalizations far outweigh the science in this piece.

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3 Responses to Asperger’s and Innovative Thinking

  1. sydhavely says:

    A home run post, Colleen–from your setting up the piece, from useful examples, from taking the author’s point of view, to offering your own, well-reasoned, opinion, Nicely done,

  2. Hi Colleen, I recently came across this article that talks about this subject as well: http://blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2015/04/03/microsoft-announces-pilot-program-to-hire-people-with-autism/
    Great post, interesting read!

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