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An Office Designed for Workers with Autism (nytimes.com)
167 points by pseudolus 61 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

If you've met one person on the spectrum, you've met one person on the spectrum. The range of non-neurotypicality is extremely broad and highly individualized.

To give a quick analogy: most people have output filters to prevent them from saying things that other people will consider to be abrupt, rude, or irrelevant. Most spectrum people have input filters instead, developed to keep them from being hurt by the world. When an input-filter person talks to an output-filter person, the speaker might sound overbearing, arrogant, or impolite. When an output-filter person talks to an input-filter person, they might sound smarmy and unwilling to convey essential information.

Or... they might not. Endless variations exist, and some people on the spectrum have learned to emulate output-filters, make subtler points and ask clarifying questions. All of this takes a lot of processing time which has to be done in emulation mode rather than having native subroutines, so when brain resources are scarce -- say, when under stress -- they get less priority.

And that's just one aspect of the spectrum. The reporter managed to get one really good quote in:

“People with my type of disorder, it’s not that we don’t have emotion,” Gadson said. “It’s that we have too much emotion. We can’t push that stuff back.”

If you take away one thing from this article, that's the right one.

When an input-filter person talks to an output-filter person, the speaker might sound overbearing, arrogant, or impolite. When an output-filter person talks to an input-filter person, they might sound smarmy and unwilling to convey essential information.

I wish there were a safe place for such people to communicate online. Getting downvoted every time you say something you perceive as completely innocent is quite tough.

Unfortunately, that well has been pretty badly tainted by people who intentionally fake ignorance for trolling purposes or to spread unpleasant perspectives.

That's why you have an input filter. :)

Personally, I feel like I'm not doing anything worthwhile if I'm not saying down-votable things. My internet points are the currency I use to say things that I know people will disagree with, but that I believe are worth serious consideration anyway. If I am being up-voted all the time, I would probably be in an echo chamber posting affirming memes.

I feel similarly. I point out facts that contradict the popular narrative and get regularly downvoted for it, but it's important to post such things.

I'm not interested in hearing solely from people who agree with me, either.

The Internet is dominated by people with no output filter, from Reddit to Twitter and more.

My sister was diagnosed with autism late in life. It never seemed like a good fit to me because she has a wide range of disabilities but excellent communication skills. This "input filter" description rings so true. This is absolutely the way she operates. Thanks!

I recall reading a while back that there is in fact a "too much emotion" school of thought on autism. The idea is that the autistic learn to totally deaden their emotions as a defense mechanism because the alternative is too intense and painful. Maybe it's the neurological opposite of psychopathy?

Really it is more a matter of expression and reading - they're still there but not expressed in the same way nor your cues and conventions picked up necessarily. Just because their tone may not convey it doesn't mean they have deadened emotions - that is depression.

Think of it like a cat vs a dog wagging a tail. Usually a cat with a wagging tail is agitated - a dog with one is happy. Just because a cat with a wagging tail swats at you doesn't mean they are happy to attack - it means they are stressed out and you disregarded their clear signal!

I say usually because there are outlier cases that learn the other conventions. See Tally the Husky for an example who even does the "cat-loafing" pose of hiding all legs while sitting.

I suspect the "too much emotion" is a misguided attempt to spin a negative into a positive. I think it's more accurate to say that autistic people have "more emotion than they can manage" -- trouble managing (or lack of instinct for how to manage) their emotions to express them in socially acceptable ways, so they either feel overwhelemed because they don't know how to express emotions effectively, leading to either "yelling silently" (which creates a feeling of isolation from people they want to connect with) or outburst that scare people away (leading to real isolation), or both.

I wish it were, but I've met at least one person who I think is both psychopathic and on the spectrum. Mind you, I'm not a psychiatrist and am unqualified to make diagnoses.

Jeez, maybe I'M on the spectrum. That describes me a lot.

It's common for those more 'high-functioning' - i.e. more able to 'mask' in society - to not receive a diagnosis until much later in life. Anthony Hopkins was not diagnosed til late in his life [1].

I mentioned it already elsewhere in this thread, but if you want to explore things further it may be worth taking the RAADS-R [2]. While the test itself, and self diagnosis in general, is in no way comprehensive, it may help, and can be the first step towards a diagnosis.

[1] https://eu.desertsun.com/story/life/entertainment/people/bru...

[2] https://aspietests.org/

I took one a while back that was 25 or over need to go see a specialist, I scored 43.

I never did, I function fine and one advantage to been a programmer is none-techies expect you to be eccentric.

I don't think I am but it's good top cover.

> At the Culver City office, overhead lights bothered one or two colleagues so much that everyone agreed to work without artificial lights, so that often, by the end of the day, they are all working in pitch darkness, rectangles of soft, bright light from their computers illuminating their faces.

Oh crap. I chose the quiet office without windows over the noisy office with windows, then I took all but one of the bulbs out of the overheads and put a lamp on my desk.

The email thing hit a bit too close to home, I always worry about the tone and whether I'm been too blunt, my boss has commented (not disparagingly) that I can be direct, I asked if that meant rude but apparently not, just direct.

Wait, does anyone not worry about the tone if the relationship is not super-casual?

I rarely worry about tone in any established relationship. I don't feel like that is particularly unusual.

To add, its not even something that presents itself the same way at different stages of life. Many high functioning folks had a lot of very classic troubles early in life with sensory overload, anxiety and missing social cues, but have eventually developed filters and coping mechanisms to have a lot less of a problem as they grow older, even to the extent that its a "hidden" feature that causes trouble to the person but nobody would suspect. It comes out in the form of staying home for an anxiety attack, depression, or occasional social cue slips.

Holly... scored 151, should i go and do something with this?

I don't know about the scores/thresholds of this particular test, but the best way to know for sure is getting evaluated by a trained professional.

I got 173 lol

It's a spectrum so you are on it pretty much by definition. It just depends on the degree. I also have a lot of autistic traits but I also have extrovert traits and I am also shy. We should stop labelling people on one dimension.

I've seen posts from families with autistic children saying, effectively, "just because it's a spectrum doesn't mean you're on it".

Personally that seems wrong, it seems like particular traits compound together and that people exhibit fewer/more of those traits to a greater/lesser degree.

Not sure what the professional psychs think about it currently?

dunno, have a look..


I really don't mean to be a dick here, but aren't these two statements in conflict?

1. If you've met one person on the spectrum, you've met one person on the spectrum. The range of non-neurotypicality is extremely broad and highly individualized.

2. Most spectrum people have input filters instead, developed to keep them from being hurt by the world.

This isn't a leading question, as I don't really know enough about the subject to have an opinion. But I'm generally skeptical of all message board commentary about autism. So I'm not saying you're wrong, I would just need more convincing before I'm persuaded that most autistic people have "input filters" to prevent them from "being hurt by the world."

More generally I can see why grouping people into "output-filter" types and "input-filter" types might be a good faith exercise in empathy...but is it actually true? Going back to your first statement, you're talking about autism as something highly individualized. How is this compatible with an idea that seems to suck all nuance out of it, like a binary grouping?

I also have a problem with Gadson's claim:

“People with my type of disorder, it’s not that we don’t have emotion,” Gadson said. “It’s that we have too much emotion. We can’t push that stuff back.”

On one hand I can see why this is an attractive idea, for the same reason we'd want to empathize with "input-filter" people. On the other hand I see two problems. First, is Gadson's claim a useful one? When people perpetuate the stereotype that autism causes emotionlessness, do they actually care about the interiority of the person or are they talking about behavior? If what they're trying to communicate is in regards to behavior, I don't think Gadson responds to the heart of their meaning; which is probably something more like, "I'm uncomfortable around autistic people because they're robotic and unsympathetic" (NB I'm not expressing a personal belief here). In a very real sense they're still right despite Gadson's reply, because they're talking about behavior and Gadson is talking about a rich interiority.

The second problem I see with Gadson's comment is that it seems like he's generalizing autism again. Do all or most people with autism want to be described by the comment, "I actually have too much emotion"? Would they consider that mostly correct, a gross oversimplification, a useful or useless oversimplification, or wrong outright? It seems like no matter what we do, we can't get away from the problem of a few people speaking for everyone when it comes to autism.

I don't think you're a dick, I think I didn't convey my point well enough.

I picked one column off of a matrix and pointed out that most people considered to be "on the spectrum" have a high value here, whereas most neurotypical folks have a low value in that cell. That's not the only difference, it's just one that's easy to pick out. But it's also not a guaranteed indicator: if you've got an input filter and no output filter but you aren't actually on the spectrum, you can change the value there relatively easily. Read Dale Carnegie and a couple of books on communication styles and practice for a week or two: boom, you've switched over.

People on the spectrum can't do that easily. Instead of being a skill that they just haven't picked up, it's a method of analysis that takes a lot of work, remembering all the rules all the time.

Except, of course, there are people who find it more or less hard, and have put more or less work into it, so the results vary. Lots of gradations.

As to Gadson's comment: it is actually helpful from the perspective of neurotypical people who are trying to empathize with spectrum people, because it provides a reasonably useful metaphor for them to work in. The general perspective is called the Intense World theory of autism.

It can lead you to good analysis which yields workable solutions: by reducing the need for strong input filters, they can free up brain resources for doing what needs to be done. Environmental noise? Visual distractions? Organizational improvements? Working with everyone's strengths improves everyone's outcomes.

As to "I actually have too much emotion" as a descriptive phrase: if you take out the negative connotation of "too much", yes, I think it does describe one aspect of autism really well. "I feel things more intensely than neurotypical people do, and as a result I want to/have to block things out" might be a more universal description.

> Read Dale Carnegie and a couple of books on communication styles and practice for a week or two: boom, you've switched over.

Please don't trivialize challenges of NT people. It is hard for ANYONE to make significant behavioral changes. In particular the evidence is that 'self-help' books like the one you mentioned are essentially ineffective.

Of course it's hard to make behavioral changes. That's part of the reason it's such a worthwhile goal.

It might be more effective if they were refactored in to a problem / solution format where it was easier for a reader to self-filter in to matching problem statements, then see a weighted list of correction methods that are more / less effective and try to implement a couple that might work for them.

Mind if I see some of this evidence? Because books really helped me, but only after I got myself into a much more accepting environment first, where I could experiment with the things in the books.

> "I feel things more intensely than neurotypical people do, and as a result I want to/have to block things out" might be a more universal description.

Hmm. And of the things that can cause feelings, people might be at the top of the list, and therefore the first to be blocked out?

Consider your browser fingerprint. Most people use Chrome. Most people use Windows. Most people use English.... but when you combine all those "most"s, you find that you only have a minority of people.

Too much emotion and can’t push it back. How do they know they CAN’T push it back? Serious question.

That’s what people used to say about women throughout history and called the disorder “Hysteria” (just a physical problem caused by the uterus, solved by tittilation by a doctor) until they realized that it was as scientific as bloodletting.

Many people have no idea what they are capable of, in many areas — sports and cognitive taskss included — until they learn a system.

Most people will tell you no way can they remember 1000 digits in a row. But then they learn a system and it becomes second nature.

EDIT: It has been one minute and already the silent knee jerk downvotes have come. No answer just downvote. Before you downvote or shame this comment into not having the appropriate response to autism (ignore the meta irony of “appropriate response” being the issue in the first place) consider how many kids, adults and elderly are overmedicated because the underlying system is causing “disorders”. Whether it’s almost-methamphetamines given for ADD (the “hysteria” of the 21st century) or elderly being medicated in nursing homes for complaining, perhaps people are not as powerless and dependent on medication as they are made out to be. One in four middle aged women is medicating herself with psychiatric drugs in the USA. There is a new opiod epidemic too. This is the new normal — call something a condition instead of dealing with it. An exception may be gender dysphoria, which is dealt with differently.

Instead of medicating the kids for ADHD, consider why your school system makes them sit down and shut up for 8-10 hours a day. Why does Finland magically have far less ADHD? Instead of automatically prescribing medications for depression, perhaps we should re-evaluate a system where people are lonely for years, commuting from their apartment to their work and back, with chronically elevated cortisol levels until their brain adapts.

USA is one of the most overmedicated, and chronically depressed population, exceeding countries with far less wealth. Even countries with long darkness which naturally causes depression have higher levels of happiness than USA. We have no universal healthcare and we have more gun violence and more incarcerated than any other developed country. But of course in every area there are people who say “nothing can be done, shut up, you’re not supposed to point out that other countries and systems have less of these problems. It’s just the way things are!”

This was on a recent Joe Rogan podcast going deeper:


This is an important comment. People might also be interested in the book Saving Normal: An Insider's Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life by Allen Frances (who was the chair of the DSM-4 committee)

Before reading the article, I predicted that it would end up being an office that was like most people would want, as the workers.

Instead, I find that it's a typical office that made a ton of mistakes and changed things just enough to get by.

And, much like I predicted, those changes were things that most people would be happy about.

It's pretty predictable that being told to clean off your desks, and then coming in the next week to a completely redesigned office would be off-putting for a lot of people. They don't need to be on the spectrum for that to be a stressful situation. Maybe many people shrug it off pretty quickly, but they shouldn't have to. Just freaking tell them what's going on. And since it's their workspace, maybe even let them in on the redesign during the planning, too.

I was surprised that offices weren't a thing, and they still tried to do cubicles. And their employees were forced to do things like put monitors between each other to stop their perfectly normal behaviors from getting on each others nerves.

At my previous job, the CEO put in really expensive lights that we didn't ask for. Because they were expensive, he got upset when we turned them off and insisted we leave them on. We did, but we didn't like it. We even put up cloth to block some of the light for those who really hated it. When we got moved to another part of the building without the special lights, we turned them off and that was suddenly okay. Ugh.

In short, I think most of the stuff in the article applies to people in general, and it'd sure be nice if managers would realize that.

Yeah I don't know if I have autism or whatever but I do know that I can't fucking concentrate with a dozen people having loud conversations 5 feet away from me. I don't think this makes me "weird" - there's a long history of letting people who are asked to concentrate like exam-takers, at least, the courtesy of silence. But if "be nice to autistic" people is what we have to say in order to get a return to basic human decency, so be it.

> Yeah I don't know if I have autism or whatever but I do know that I can't fucking concentrate with a dozen people having loud conversations 5 feet away from me.

It's not autism. Ignoring a stimulus takes effort. It diverts resources that you could be using for something else.

I feel like this describes all of the software teams in which I've worked, although I had better managers than they seem to have at Auticon, which is ironic given what they are trying to do. Beam strikes me as being a poor communicator in general, not giving people a heads up on office changes and going so far as to move someone's desk without telling them about it is just plain lazy and stupid.

>The interview process alone is a sociability test that many people with autism are destined to fail or inclined to avoid altogether.

Having lived outside of the U.S., I think this is a particularly American problem. We have strong extroversion/optimism bias here, especially in the hiring process.

One of the worst aspects about being high functioning is having to choose between authenticity and acceptance.

I wonder if one could claim autism or ASD as a way to get a decent private office with a door as an ADA/EOE thing.

(I've done something right in my life that one of our office buildings was built with not-soundproof-enough walls on the private offices, so the office manager/ops person (who stereotypically would be the one fighting this for budget reasons) was the first person to suggest/drive the "we should completely rebuild our 6-month-old office to have better sound isolation and even more private offices".)

I have a much easier time convincing people of my ideas on a one on one basis, and honestly a big part of it is then getting to say what scares them and me promising to make allowances or at least not to muck it up too badly.

People talk around their real concerns when others are listening. Especially if there are toxic optimists in the room.

Speaking as someone on the spectrum, please do not fake a condition to try to get better treatment or something you want. Not only is this dishonest but it makes it harder for those of us who are really on the spectrum to get the assistance we really need. It’s already hard enough for us to get support in the workplace or even hold down a job, to contend with the “I wonder if they’re faking it to get special treatment” it just makes things harder.

More in their line to design offices for loud extroverts and office-pest type characters... a sturdy door with a lock is usually good enough.

How would you describe an office pest?

I have a coworker who has an uncanny ability to appear in my cube right after I fart. Does that count?

These type of articles always make me question myself and whether I'm on the spectrum, but I look online and only see resources for screening children. Is there a straightforward way to get screened as an adult?

The diagnostic process varies greatly from place to place. Even within countries different regions will handle diagnoses differently, and diagnosis for adults is typically much more difficult than it is for children. You may be asked to bring a parent or guardian who can answer questions about your childhood and development.

A good first step may be the RAADS-R test, which you can take here [1]. While not comprehensive, your results will be shown alongside those of people on the spectrum for comparison, and you can get a good idea of where you stand. If you do pursue a diagnosis, it could help to bring a printed copy of your test. The site also offers various other tests, including ones for voice and face interpretation.

[1] https://aspietests.org/

Is there any reason other than personal knowledge to get diagnosed on the spectrum? I woulnd't at all the surprised if if I landed somewhere on it, but even if there was a (drug) treatment I don't think I would want to take it, I more or less like the way I am.

As mentioned in the article, many autistic people find it difficult to become or stay employed, and a formal diagnosis can help in terms of accommodation or working at a company like Auticon. However, if you find yourself coping fine with life, work, and relationships, pursuing a diagnosis is totally optional.

I'm doing well enough in those regards, but even if I wasn't what would a diagnosis do wrt life and relationships?

Self acceptance. I developed quite the case of self loathing from a life on the spectrum without knowing it. I had a deep unconscious belief that I was bad, lazy, dumb or just broken.

It's helped me to treat myself and others with a lot more compassion. My mental health and productivity have both improved dramatically. It has been truly life changing.

i think a possible reason would be if you're looking for an awareness of something in your life. naming something, and recognizing it, can be helpful to adjusting to it.

it might be an answer to a small question that works as a keystone to greater peace.

Two things:

* It can give you an understanding of how your own brain works, so you can better tailor your life to your strengths and weaknesses. Obviously, any amount of self-reflection will help with this, but an actual autism spectrum diagnosis will give you some insight into which aspects are actually biological and very hard to change versus potentially more mutable.

* It will help the people around you better understand you and which parts of your behavior are your "fault" and which are because of your brain. Many of the classic ways that autism presents itself would be hurtful to other people if done by a neuro-typical person: talking over someone, shutting down when stressed, avoiding social interaction, not picking up on signal, etc. All of these come across as selfish or uncaring if you don't know that that's how the person's brain works.

In practice, I think the latter is more useful than the former.

It might help you figure out better ways to cope with the world. On the other hand, you don't need a formal diagnosis for that.

Some companies like Microsoft have affirmative action for autists.

As an adult? Not sure.

As a kid? It opens a lot of doors for additional help and accommodations in schools. This will of course vary by state and district, but it was a game changer for our son.

I just did it, found the possible answers to lack nuance for some questions, which I guess makes it easier to assess.

Hey, I got quite a high score, pretty happy with myself I guess. Oh wait ...

My roommate in college was on the spectrum, and I work with a number of people who are. Their social missteps don't bother me, as I know they can't help it.

It's like I when had a friend from another country. English was not his strong point, and I quickly learned to not infer nuance from his word choices.

“It was like my brain threw the blue screen of death on me.”

My brain goes into kernel panic and forces me to restart from GRUB using an earlier build.


Favorite bit of wording from the article: "the number representing pi up to 15 digits "

I'm glad to see companies trying to build businesses around the needs and abilities of their employees in this way. It starts with accommodating a group of people, but there might be lessons learned and advancements that benefit all employees at large.

This was a great read. Hopefully this trend can spread to more countries.

Why not? We already have offices designed for smart assholes. Visit a trading floor.


I'm sorry you had such a poor experience, and it does sound like your boss should never have been given those responsibilities if he behaved that way, but those failings were his own and do not necessarily reflect on all autistic people.

One asshole doesn't mean all people with 1 trait in common with him are unfit for something. Don't generalize.

Sounds like maybe he was just an asshole. How do you know this was due to his autism and not due to just that?

Maybe it was a combination of the two, but let me tell you, his inability for empathy and emotional understanding was the crux of the problem. I've known a handful of autistic people and while I definitely know some really nice autistic people, I think that being a manager requires a lot of empathy and understanding that they just aren't equipped to handle.. When you have power over people and you are unable to empathize with them, you become a tyrant.

Your generalizations are discriminatory and unfounded. People on the spectrum are, well, a whole spectrum.

I, personally, am on the spectrum and have very strong empathy and emotional understanding. It wasn't natural, but it is a skill I developed after much hard work trying to get by in a normie world.

It does, however, cause a high cognitive load. My analogy is software emulation. Most people have dedicated hardware, but I have to do it in software at a cost of increased CPU usage.

Tldr; you can't make sweeping generalizations about which jobs a diverse group of people should be allowed to work. Bad bosses come in all shapes and sizes.

yes, but, do you think that there are some personality types or people who are more likely than average to be bad then good at being a manager? Don’t you think that autistic people might possibly be on one end vs the other?

Also, don’t you think having to “emulate” things reduces your throughput compared to a “normie”? Wouldn’t this imply that you might be worse than other people at managing people because your pipe is saturated?

>> there are some personality types or people

Yes, assholes in particular are bad at being managers.

On a more serious / less sarcastic note, you seem to have a preconceived notion of what autism should look like and/or what range of behaviors it entails. There _are_ types of it that would cause one to be an exceptionally bad manager, but there is also a strong possibility (that I think you need to consider) that your manager's flaws weren't caused by autism at all. People with severe autism typically don't make it into management positions in the first place.

I consider myself to be on the spectrum. I'm never the "heart of the party" (nor do I ever feel any desire to go to parties), I find it somewhat anxiety inducing to approach people I don't know well, stuff like that, pretty mild. If it I didn't feel like it impacts my life in a negative way, I'd call this "strong introversion" or the like.

Yet I'm basically the polar opposite of what you've described in your original post (other than being hard-ass on code quality), and I've received glowing praise from my former reports. I give people guidance and autonomy, and let them be adults. And if they aren't, I give them more guidance and perhaps very slightly less autonomy. If they can't function in this set-up, we part ways. This, by the way, happened only once. The person just didn't want the job I think.

If people with severe autism don’t make it into management, isn’t it likely that the bell curve is shifted versus neurotypical people on who can be a good manager? Wouldn’t this also imply that an autistic manager is more likely to be a worse manager than a neurotypical person? (Just considering the statistical distributions).

Of course, this doesn’t have anything to do with you (according to your post, you seem like a good manager), I’m talking about the statistical distributions.

And while I understand why someone might get offended by a statement of the form: short people are slower than average at running when you are a short person who runs very fast, I am just describing the distribution (in which any individual could be an outlier), not an affirmative statement like: there does not exist an autistic person who is also a good manager.

I hear what you're saying, and I'm sorry you had to endure this. But again, unless the person had a very strong degree of autism, there's a strong possibility that they were just an asshole towards you, rather than not able to feel empathy on a more fundamental level. FWIW I have encountered plenty of socially awkward and personally unaware people, as well as more than a fair share of just plain assholes, but I have never (in 25 years in the profession) encountered anybody in a manager position so impaired that they'd turn the lives of their reports into a living hell _because of that impairment_. FWIW the worst manager I've seen was an extraverted, narcissistic psychopath.

> his inability for empathy and emotional understanding was the crux of the problem

oh the irony!

Ummm, it seems like the problems may not be 100% on your ex-boss here. If you’re having dreams about killing somebody, perhaps a little self introspection is in order.

I'm not going to defend a negative generalization of all autistic people, however I am going to ferociously defend thinking or dreaming of killing someone being perfectly normal.

I had an investor in a company I started who used his position as a giant dick-waving platform. He would constantly come in and tell us that we shouldn't be paying ourselves salary, or that he could make more money by opening a lemonade stand.

Eventually I started having thoughts and dreams about, if not killing him, him having a terrible "accident."

I think if you haven't wished death on someone ever in your live, you're either living in denial or haven't met a wide enough range of people. One day you might have to associate with someone who's entire existence you find vile and pointless, and you might change your tune.

A Zen teacher I listen to by podcast, said that one of the nicest things his Zen master told him when he was a student was: "Sometimes people have weird thoughts, and it's OK."

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