Is Asperger’s Contagious?

Forgive the possibly offensive title of this post. I’ll explain. I attended the first day of the Mesh 2008 conference today here in Toronto. This is a brand new conference for me, although it’s now in its third year. Although I have online and offline relationships of varying degrees with perhaps a dozen people who were attending, I still found the “networking” to be incredibly stressful. In fact, at lunch, I bailed completely and went off to eat on my own, despite the fact that there was a free catered lunch available at the MaRS Centre, the conference venue. It felt too much like the first day of high school in the school cafeteria for me. So you’ll know where I’m coming from when I talk about one of the sessions I attended.

CBC Radio’s Nora Young hosts a radio program called Spark! and her session was being taped for later broadcast as a show. She spoke with Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton on the subject “Does Location Matter?” which I thought would be about the benefits of telecommuting. It turned out to be mostly about the advances in video conferencing software and how to use it to work and socialize virtually with our colleagues and friends. It was fascinating stuff, but I was hoping the conversation would be broader.

We interact in a variety of ways with others online, but it’s mostly in the course of doing several other things at the same time. I can post a Twitter message, comment on a blog, and carry on an IM conversation all at the same time, possibly interacting with three different people, while at the same time writing in Microsoft Word or working with an image in Photoshop. I call these “micro-interactions” because they usually involve very little time, and are usually quite focussed on a particular subject or question. I’m reacting to a specific thing the other person has posted, for instance. These interactions have a defined purpose and they require little etiquette because online, interruptions can be dealt with later.

I’m finding more and more, though, that when I meet some of these same people offline, I’m finding the interactions more difficult. The idea of giving or getting “full attention” seems a bit overwhelming. I often fear that in offline situations, we won’t have enough conversation to keep things running smoothly. I also dread the awkwardness of introductions and departures, and knowing how long to just “hang around.” These are all non-issues with people I’ve met and known offline, because there is established etiquette. But I find that the more we interact online, the more awkward we get when we can’t interact the same way in the physical world. Among even good friends whom I’ve met online, our face-to-face interactions can sometimes feel awkward. “Just hanging out” can be difficult without some issue or topic to focus our energies toward.

Paul Collins tells a funny but illuminating story in his book Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. He describes a speaking engagement at Microsoft in which the heads of more than half the audience are down over their laptops, a scene familiar to many conference speakers nowadays. When he asks what’s going on, his host tells him the audience members are watching the streaming video broadcast of the very talk they’re attending. It’s joked that many web geeks are probably mildly autistic, and that their legendary social awkwardness may actually be symptomatic of Asperger’s Syndrome, but it’s not really a joke.

The incidence of autism in general is rising rapidly; some statistics say it now affects one in 100 births. It’s interesting to me that the number is rising just as more and more of our social interactions are moving online. If I’m finding my own feelings and confidence around social interactions changing, I wonder how it will be for the generation of children who are growing up with the sort of “micro-interactions” I’ve described earlier?

Now all of this could just be unique to me. Maybe I’m just having a bad day socially. But I’m glad that it forced me to think about some of these issues. I’m very curious to see what others think about this. Feel free to comment below, or should you see me wandering around at Mesh tomorrow, by all means stop me. At least we’ll have a defined topic to discuss. 🙂