Saturday, September 24, 2011

Thoughts On Assange And Asperger's

I am not a psychologist and I've never met Julian Assange, so I have no idea whether he has Asperger's Syndrome or not. But it's something I have pondered for some time. After many years working with computer programmers and testers (statistically the most popular job for "Aspies"), I was forced to learn more about the condition when my teenage boy's behaviour became maddeningly difficult to understand. Perhaps that explains why I've been less inclined than others to criticise Assange's supposedly "erratic" behaviour.

The enigmatic Australian is clearly not severely afflicted. But interminable misunderstandings with business partners and colleagues, a sometimes monotone voice, and the occasional social faux pas are typical "Aspie" traits. So too are Assange's unflinching determination, his precise, logical thinking, his apparent lack of fear when confronting very powerful enemies, and even his quirky sense of humour.

In a new book being touted as his "unauthorised autobiography", Assange reportedly makes this half-hearted admission:
"I was beginning to get the hacker's disease: no sleep, bottomless curiosity, single-mindedness, and an obsession with precision. Later, when I became well known, people would enjoy pointing out that I had Asperger's or else that I was dangling somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, so let's just say I am – all hackers are, and I would argue all men are a little bit autistic."
I tend to agree. If the human brain is a complex electrical wiring system, autism is a physical condition where a bunch of wires are not connected properly. Individuals with Asperger's are at the lower end of the autism spectrum, where only a few wires (typically connected with imagination and human interaction) are wrongly connected. Nature being what it is, I'm sure the perfect brain is as elusive as the perfect body.

Medical arguments over how to diagnose and treat Asperger's Syndrome are endless. It wasn't recognized as an official diagnosis in the US until 1994, and some still argue that it should be treated like any other autism spectrum disorder. Some regard it as a "disability" while others call it a "difference" which does not necessarily require treatment.

The problem is that every Asperger's sufferer exhibits different symptoms, and for every rule there are countless exceptions. Some Aspies are intensely sensitive to light, while others cannot stand contact with certain fabrics. Most, but not all, have problems with eye contact. People with high IQ's tend to be at the lower end of the spectrum, but then there are high IQ people like Dustin Hoffman's "Rain Man" at the other extreme. Low IQ cases can also exhibit only mild symptoms.

If medical experts are still struggling to understand the condition, legal minds are even further behind. Gerry Smith in HuffPo points out that several famous hackers have used Asperger's diagnoses as part of their defence in court, with mixed results. Cases of interest include:

- Ryan "Topiary" Cleary, alleged Lulzec hacker,
- Adrian Lamo, who was found guilty of hacking The New York Times in 2003, then became a friend of US government agents and eventually snitched on alleged Cablegate source Bradley Manning,
- Gary McKinnon, who was arrested for hacking NASA and the Pentagon in 2002 and has been fighting extradition from the UK to the US ever since.

Smith's article is titled: "Is Having Autism A Defense For Hacking?" It's a bit of a stupid question to anyone familiar with Asperger's, let alone full-scale autism. Surely any medical condition which affects a person's behaviour must be taken into account when judging that person's actions? The only question is the extent to which that condition influenced the action. And when it comes to Asperger's, that's sometimes a very difficult call to make.

For example, Julian Assange has been widely criticised for allegedly suggesting that names did not need to be redacted from leaked US cables because informants ‘deserved to die’. In the new book he reportedly explains:
"This is just nonsense: I said some people held that view, but that we would edit the documents to preserve their essential content and not throw harm in people’s way if we could avoid it... In actual fact, we had been burning the midnight oil on redactions from early on."
Is it possible that this much-hyped "bombshell" moment was just a lack of communication? Asperger's sufferers typically have difficulty picking up on non-verbal communication, non-literal language, and emotions. Is it possible Assange - if he does have Asperger's - didn't even realise that he needed to explain his words a bit better? I don't know, I wasn't in the room. But having experienced dozens of similarly baffling moments of miscommunication at home over the past few years, often leading to major dramas with my child, I am willing to keep an open mind.

In the end, it really shouldn't matter too much whether Julian Assange has Asperger's or not. We should judge others by their actions, preferably with a degree of generosity, and be particularly understanding where disabilities are concerned. We shouldn't condemn people whose personalities don't match our own. Likewise, journalists should not prejudice their reporting because they find Julian Assange "difficult", and the public should not base their opinions about WikiLeaks on such relentlessly hostile media attitudes.

But this is the world we live in. Even newspaper editors are human beings, and the dynamics of our daily lives are a swirl of colourful emotions and complex interactions. In such a world, which frequently leaves those with Aspberger's Syndrome wounded, angry and bewildered, is it possible for the cold, hard logic of Truth to prevail?

As a bit of an Aspie myself, I certainly hope so. The world needs WikiLeaks.


  1. Good points. As a face blind I understand exactly what serious problems can arise through simple misunderstandings.
    "We should not condemn people whose personalities do not match our own." An appeal which will hopefully be heard. Thank you.

  2. Thanks Anonymous. As a "face blind" I'm sure you can understand how disruptive Asperger's can be to people's lives. Not just the sufferer but also those around. It really has caused a lot of drama for us!

    Having said that, I really don't think Assange has anything more than a very mild case at worst. And I would put myself in a similar category. But it's only when I began to seriously consider the possibility, prompted by my child's issues, that I began to make sense of a few repetitive and confusing themes in my life.

    If JA reads this, I hope he understands that it's not meant to be another attack on him, just an honest attempt to shine a light on a possible solution to some recurring problems.

    Mind you, I am still open to the argument that 99% of Assange's problems are the direct result of a relentless and powerful campaign of intimidation.

  3. Yes, Gary, I'm with you.
    99% are the result of intimidation and another half percent is the result of the impatience of a very intelligent mind.
    And I am sure, JA would understand your words if he ever would read them. (But I do not know him personally, so this are just my two cents.)

    7 years ago I discovered my face blindness. And since then I am browsing the internet for more information. I learned that there are a lot of different perception disorders (is this the correct english term?)and as you said, I'm sure the perfect brain is as elusive as the perfect body. We should always keep this in mind before we condemn a 'strange' behaving person.

  4. Hi Gary,,,

    we know each other quite well ( from the past ) and I am am openly appluading your honesty in addressing this issue and presenting it to the public.

    Many of Julians decisions are questionable and although we all fight for his freedom and strive to keep Wikileaks alive, I too have asked myself if he can actually be made accountable for some of the things he has said and done.

    My answer is no.

    I don't see your articles as a personal attack on Julian or anyone closely related to him. I think it will make a lot of people stop and think as to what drives Assange.

    Too often these days, critical remarks about Julians actions are swept uder the table and stamped as " Assange Trolling " or öabeled simply " attacks on Assange "

    Maybe your articles will Change the whole Outlook on peoples Approach to Assange and why makes him tick.

    Thank you for your contribution and bringing this issue to the table.

    Anonymous 2