Before I tell you why I think she has Asperger Syndrome, I want to tell you why I think it’s important: Aspergers is a serious disability that is very very difficult to diagnose in girls. (I know this all too well: I have Aspergers, and I was not diagnosed until I was an adult.)
Aspergers is a mental disability that primarily affects peoples’ ability to read social cues. You might think this is a small deficit, but actually social skills are essential to almost everything we do. An inability to read social cues leads to so much isolation and misunderstanding that suicide is relatively common among people with Aspergers.
Most people with Aspergers have a very high IQ. There is a lot written about men with Aspergers. The mental disorder is so common in Silicon Valley that it has been called The Geek Syndrome. Microsoft was one of the first companies to provide insurance coverage for Aspergers treatments, and the company did it because so many people at Microsoft have it, and the disability is genetic, so employees were having to pay for their kids’ therapies.
Perhaps the most elucidating fact about the seriousness of Aspergers is that a diagnosis qualifies a child for special education services which are extremely costly to the public schools but the services are considered essential because high IQ is not enough to succeed in most cases.
You know what it looks like in men: Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. They are geniuses who are socially awkward. As long as they stay in their realm where brains matter most, they are okay. They can pass. Taken out of that realm, performing social skills in an unscripted way, they look weird.
Social skills exist on a continuum. Men as a group have fewer social skills than women. So women with Aspergers will still appear to have more social skills than many men without Aspergers. Also, girls are more likely to ask for help navigating the world as they grow up, so their stumbling blocks will be less obvious.
It’s important to be able to identify Aspergers in girls so they can get the same level of help in school that the boys are getting. Kids with Aspergers need help with executive functions and pragmatic language. Often parents of girls don’t notice the deficit until the girl is depressed and functioning below grade level. And sometimes, women don’t notice they have Aspergers until late in life, as they look for an explanation for how they can be so incredibly smart and incredibly incompetent at the same time.
Identifying Mayer as having Aspergers will help women of all ages understand themselves better. And it should also give lots of women a roadmap for how to be succeesful at work if you have Aspergers. Because for most women, what Mayer has achieved is unattainable, but for women with Aspergers, and a support system, that might not be the case.
1. Mayer is a math genius.
She has undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford in artificial intelligence, and she has a photographic memory. Not all math geniuses have Aspergers, but Wired magazine wrote that there is strong correlation. People with Aspergers think in systems and memorize systems very well. There tends to be an inverse relationship between one’s feeling and sensitivity part of the their brain vs. their mathematical and logical part of their brain. Asperger’s is a spectrum disorder. Being good at systematic thinking is part of that spectrum.
2. Mayer focuses exclusively on work.
We know that men are good at focusing on work obsessively and women are not as interested in that type of focus. There are exceptions. For example, women who are ENTJs on the Myers Briggs scale can focus obsessively on work. But that is less than 1% of the population. In general, when there are kids involved, the careers of men remain constant, and careers of women start tanking, not because women are unambitious or incapable, but because women choose to have a multifaceted focus rather than a single focus. Mayer, on the other hand, has no problem focusing on work in the face of kids. And people with Aspergers typically have obsessive focus on whatever interests them.
3. Mayer is a black and white thinker.
She famously was in charge of the content of the home page at Google. In fact, though, the page is largely empty, and she was largely in charge of saying no. Which people with Aspergers are very good at. You find people with Aspergers in jobs where there is clearly a right answer. Or at least they think there is a right answer. So Mayer was the queen of Quality Assurance at Google, a job well suited for anyone with Aspergers. Also, she was able to turn other disciplines into black and white decision points. Like design. Designers at Google quit because Mayer was so adamant that design is a statistics exercise, with trial and error from A/B testing ad infinitium.
4. Mayer has terrible social skills at work.
Some of you will say “What about Sheryl Sandberg? She is obsessively focused on work. Does she have Aspergers?” But Sandberg’s job is, among other things, to add some competent management skills to Mark Zuckeberg’s rough edges. People love working with her. And she is likely just a top-flight ENTJ. Mayer, on the other hand, is a terror to work with. She is notoriously very very hard working and very very smart, and very very difficult to get along with. You might look at Mayer on video and say she looks fine. But you will not find Mayer in an unstructured conversation on video. Structured conversations flow more on the basis of intellect. It’s the unstructured ones that are really difficult for someone with Aspergers. Those are all social skills.
5. Mayer has a very odd laugh.
Her laugh is notable enough that someone has created a video collage of her laugh. A laugh is, in fact, a social skill. First, you need to learn when to laugh, because there are socially acceptable times to laugh. For example, it is not okay to be the only person in the room laughing. But that’s a hard thing for someone with Asperger’s to grasp. While toddlers intuitively develop their own laugh, just like they develop their own smile, people with Aspergers don’t always do that. It is common for people with Aspergers to have either a wacky smile when you tell them to smile for the camera, or a wacky laugh.
So look. You can argue if all these things add up to Aspergers or not. And it’s unlikely that Mayer will ever get herself tested. But what is undeniable is that someone with traits that typically indicate a woman with Aspergers has made it to the top of Yahoo.
If you google “famous people with Aspergers” you find almost all men. The only way to get women into the list is to start understanding and talking about what women with Aspergers look like. And they look like Marissa Mayer.