Asperger’s as a user interface problem

Coke machine runs on Windows

Blue Screen of Death = Crappy User Interface

I hate it when computer software wastes my time!  Last week I was working on some research using a SUSE Linux server when suddenly everything I typed was in some foreign character set and the writing was oriented right-to-left instead of the usual left-to-right.  None of my keyboard commands worked and I wasn’t able to get back to my native keyboard or character set.  Eventually I rebuilt the server from scratch which cost me most of a day’s work.

So do I hate SUSE Linux?  Hell no, I think it’s great!  I use it all the time and I can’t imagine how I’d get along without it.  It just has a crappy user interface.  So what is this leading up to?  I think that people with Asperger’s Enhancement (or Asperger’s Syndrome if you were to look it up in the DSM-IV) are great too.  We just have a crappy user interface.  I’ll give you an example.

Yesterday my wife asked if I’d seen the weather report for the day.  In fact, I had because I have weather apps on my phone, tablet and all the PCs just for this reason.  I proceeded to tell her the highs and lows expected for the next five days, the chance of rain, where the frontal boundaries were, their expected vectors and who would be getting snow.  After a moment she took a deep breath and said “so do I need a sweater or not?”

Similar issue at the toy store.  I was there to return a “Pop the Pig” game.  In this game you feed plastic hamburgers to a toy pig and then push down on his head to simulate chewing.  The head pumping inflates a bladder in his stomach which grows until the pig’s belt busts open and he throws his hands wide.  Whoever’s turn it is when this happens loses.  This is the exchange I had with the Customer Service clerk.

“I need to return this Pop the Pig game.”

“Is there anything wrong with it?”

“Yes.  It perpetuates negative stereotypes about obesity while simultaneously promoting the very behaviors which cause that condition.”

After a moment he took a deep breath and said “is it working as designed?”

“No, the tummy doesn’t inflate.”

The thing is that to me these were perfectly reasonable responses.  My wife is always cold in the theater and should bring a sweater for that regardless.  So if she’s asking about the weather as we are getting ready to go there, she obviously wants to know about the national weather, right?  Wrong.  She’s worried about how cold the car is going to be and the brief exposure between the car and the conditioned spaces of our home and the mall.  She swears that this would have been intuitively obvious to most people and experience tells me to believe her.  She’s usually right about these kinds of things.

Same thing with the toy store.  I’d spent the day pondering how awful the game concept is so when the guy asked whether there is anything wrong with it I expressed my feelings on the subject.  Had he bothered to ask what he really wanted to know – is it broken – I would have provided the answer he was looking for.

So for you NTs (neuro-typicals) out there with an Aspie in your life perhaps it would be helpful to think of us as having a crappy user interface.  Like some of your favorite software or web sites, we have many useful and redeeming qualities.  Once you get used to the crappy user interface you won’t mind it so much, nor will you be able to imagine life without us.  But unlike software, this goes both ways.  We are just as aware of our interactions with you and to us it is you who have a crappy user interface.  You use body language we don’t see and cannot parse, and when you do talk you often speak in riddles and metaphors.  We try to come to terms with that as best we can and once we do, we can’t imagine life without you.

Each of us is unique and irreplaceable.  If we dismiss each other out of hand because it is harder than communicating with others like ourselves, because it is convenient, then we are both diminished.  Let’s agree to look past the UI and focus instead on the qualities of the person behind it. It is there that we will bond over common ground.  After that our communication difficulties, once a source of pain, will blossom into a source of inspiration and laughter.  We will love one another because of our differences rather than in spite of them.

About T.Rob

Computer security nerd. WebSphere MQ expert. Autist. Advocate. Author. Humanist. Text-based life form. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, G+, or LinkedIn.
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4 Responses to Asperger’s as a user interface problem

  1. Pingback: Welcome Lora readers! | The Odd is Silent

  2. T.Rob says:

    Found another take on this over at the Autistic Aloha blog: Born Autistic, Always Autistic, Even Prior to My Diagnosis. The comments there are insightful, too. Check it out.

  3. T.Rob says:

    Thanks for the comment, Rob. The most rewarding thing about the experience was the look in the guy’s eyes. If I’d planned this I might have had a camera ready. I suppose I might have had an interesting expression too reacting to his look and realizing that I’d just given the “wrong” answer.

    I have yet to see a working Pop the Pig game but the kid does have a Gassy Gus game. This one keeps getting bigger until it farts. It’s even worse than Pop the Pig, if that’s possible. Maybe if I seed Gus with some ripe Limburger cheese to give it that extra bit of “authenticity” he won’t want to play with it anymore.

  4. Rob Vanstone says:

    Awesome article Rob. I don’t have Aspergers enhancements and had I been eloquent enough I would have loved to have given that same answer in the toy store (we received said game as a gift and I felt exactly as you did – it’s actually worse if the bladder inflates!).

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