Monday, June 20, 2011

The Agile manifesto, Asperger's syndrome & high functioning autism

Since January my son has been going under an evaluation for autism. This has been a lot to come to terms with, but I'm on the road to acceptance. Right now we don't know where on the autism spectrum he is, but whatever happens he's going to struggle through school and the work place.

During a home visit our health coordinator made a comment that caused me to sit up and think. She said that there are a higher number than average of people with high functioning autistic (HFA) or Asperger's syndrome in IT jobs. These are generally highly technical jobs where they don't have to interact with others too much.
This got me wondering about how people with an ASD would view the Agile Manifesto. I can see how three of the principals could cause extreme anxiety.

If you aren't familiar with HFA or Asperger's syndrome, here's a high-level overview  From here on I'll be referring to both of these as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

People with ASD’s are characterized by a triad of impairments in the following areas:
  • Impairments in social interaction, including difficulties relating, sharing and forming relationships with others.
  • Impairment in social communication, including difficulties interpreting and expressing verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Impairments in imagination and social understanding, including difficulties with imaginative play, pretending, planning ahead and tendency toward detail focus at expense of global understanding
The above description is from

Now here are the main principals of the Agile Manifesto:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
As you can see there's a bit of a mismatch between the 1st and the 3rd principals of the manifesto and the triad of impairments.

It seems to me that a common sentiment within the agile community is that, people who can't collaborate within a team really shouldn't be part of a high-performing agile team. I had this view myself until recently. These people are generally talked about as crusty old programmers, with poor hygiene, who just want to sit in a basement developing software and don't want to interact with other team members.

People with ASD are generally average or above average intelligence. So my question is, as part of creating a better way of developing software have we inadvertently shunned people who aren't neuro-typical? ASD is only one disorder that could affect the functioning of a team another that comes to mind is ADHD.

I'd love to hear from your thoughts. Also if you've had a team mate or perhaps you have an ASD or ADHD yourself, I'd love to hear about your experiences.

Anyway I'm still learning about this confusing world, so feel free to correct me where I'm wrong.


  1. Quite interesting question, I am myself a computer engineer, I have worked within the telecom computer business for 20 years. I have been during that time worked as developer, project manager, manager and other different tasks. And i have myself, not a diagnosis, but much of the ASD symtoms. I can communicate WORK without any problems, but I get panic if I have to be "social", witty, interentin and so on.

    And the company I have worked for is very interested in the agile thing, where you are supposed to be sitting in close teams for long, long times. Let's say i'm interested, and since at least 50% of the guys who studied computer science at the same time as me were less social, well... This is important.

  2. James,

    First; great to read your blog. Did you learn this ScrumMaster stuff on the ranch? It does sound like some kind of livestock management issue.

    On a serious note, I have a great nephew who was diagnosed early this year as a high functioning autistic. His mom is an internist and his dad is a surgeon. The kid is bright and I am sure your son is as well. I wish you and your son the best. I am of the belief that there will be many more opportunities for both of these boys in the future. Parents like you and my niece will find a path to a lifetime of success for each of these boys.


  3. Hi Ken,
    Glad you found my blog. I did my ScrumMaster training in the great state of Texas, but not out on the ranch.

    Thanks for your words of encouragement.

    If you're every in England, look me up!


  4. I disagree with labelling this as a 'disorder'. I agree it is a difference, but I feel it is a difference in the wiring (and/or bios) in the same way that a dual core processor is different to its predecessors. I think we are looking at some ongoing evolution here. This is a difference with potential.

    From a practical point of view I can only suggest: I make a good listener in meetings. I have asynchronous social skills: if I have a contribution or need to say something I won't be able to slide it into a multiplayer conversation as easily as the rest. (or at all, mostly)

    But, while I was paired with a 'fluent' team member we moved more development work than you can imagine and more than you would expect from 2. It could be that he spent his time in meetings while I coded...

  5. Tricia, I like your outlook on this. This makes me feel that as a community we need to at the very least recognise the need to adapt our processes for people who don't communicate or think about things the way a neurotypical person would.

    I'm curious about what you mean by being paired with a fluent team member. Would you care to elaborate?