Gerhard Gaudard, an IT project manager, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome two years ago. He tells swissinfo.ch about his job, the everyday challenges facing people like him – and the secret of a happy marriage.
Gaudard, 38, trained as an IT engineer and now works in Bern for Danish-based company Specialisterne, where the majority of employees have an autism disorder. Staff work on data entry, software programming and project testing.
He works eight hours a day and commutes from Aarau, 40 minutes by train northeast of the Swiss capital, four days a week.
He is chatty (in good English), friendly, funny and keen to share his experiences – hence his decision to keep a blog which focuses on life with Asperger’s (see box). The only noticeable expression of his disorder is an absolute lack of eye contact.
swissinfo.ch: What is your job?
Gerhard Gaudard: My main task is making sure that all of our clients have work, projects, something to do. I’m also tech support here – I fix everything. Then I have to write down concepts and ideas for new projects and negotiate with customers. Eight hours a day is normally not enough!
swissinfo.ch: Do you enjoy what you do?
G.G.: Yes, very much. For me, it’s like hitting the jackpot. Working, as someone with Asperger’s, with people with Asperger’s for people with Asperger’s – you find this kind of job once in a lifetime.
swissinfo.ch: You spent nearly 20 years working in ‘normal’ companies. What was your experience there?
G.G.: Two years ago they told me I had Asperger’s. Previously, I didn’t know what it was, so almost my entire working life was a mess. Now I know why: because I didn’t understand other people and what they wanted. So sometimes it was a bit hire and fire!
swissinfo.ch: The diagnosis must have changed your life.
G.G.: It changed my life completely. I had to start a completely new life. I had to think about what kind of job I could do, where I could work, how to organise my private life, my partnership – everything. It was a lot of work.
swissinfo.ch: What are the biggest everyday challenges for someone with Asperger’s?
G.G.: We need routine: each day must be the same. If something changes, it’s horrible. For example yesterday I had to go to Zurich to see a customer. They told me last week, so I spent four days thinking about how I should get to Zurich, when I should get there and what we should discuss. I thought about that for four days, because it was a change.
swissinfo.ch: It sounds as though the atmosphere in the office is good. Do you agree?
G.G.: If Thomas [van der Stad, CEO of Specialisterne, see related story] says it’s OK, it’s OK. For me, atmosphere doesn’t exist. I don’t know what it is. I can’t feel it or see it. I have something like a filter which is so strong I can’t see emotions. I see nothing. I also do not see faces. It’s almost like being blind. That’s why I can’t answer this question.
swissinfo.ch: Why did you start writing your blog?
G.G.: The reason why is simple: I got my Asperger’s diagnosis and then checked the internet for forums and websites and information because I had to know what Asperger’s was. Then I found a forum, so I logged in, read what was being written and began communicating with people.
One of them then wrote to me, saying I was an idiot and completely wrong and so on. This was a neurotypical [a term used by many autistic people to refer to those not on the autistic spectrum] mother. I thought ‘bloody hell, this forum’s for people with Asperger’s and not for mothers without it’ – I was really pissed off.
So I thought about what I could do – and I got the idea of writing a blog. But how? Google makes it possible – it was very easy to start – and without having any concept, I just began writing. It’s a small success story. I get up to 3,500 clicks a month from around the whole world.
Asperger syndrome (pronounced with a hard g as in “burger”) is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characterised by social impairment, communication difficulties and restrictive, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour.
It is named after Hans Asperger (1906–1980), an Austrian paediatrician who in 1944 observed four children in his practice who had difficulty integrating socially. Although their intelligence appeared normal, the children lacked nonverbal communication skills, failed to demonstrate empathy with their peers, and were physically awkward. Their speech was either disjointed or overly formal, and their all-absorbing interest in a single topic dominated their conversations.
Other conditions that often co-exist with Asperger syndrome are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), tic disorders (such as Tourette syndrome), depression, anxiety disorders and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
The cause of ASD, including Asperger syndrome, is not known.
There is no cure for Asperger syndrome and the autism spectrum disorders. An effective treatment programme builds on the child’s interests, offers a predictable schedule, teaches tasks as a series of simple steps, actively engages the child’s attention in highly structured activities, and provides regular reinforcement of behaviour.
(Source: National Institutes of Health)end of infobox
swissinfo.ch: Do most readers have Asperger’s?
G.G.: I’d say half-half. Some people write and say ‘my partner’s got Asperger’s, thanks for writing this article’. Others write ‘I’m Asperger’s too, someone understands me, I thought I was the only one on the planet’.
swissinfo.ch: Do you have many hobbies? I imagine that going to the cinema, for example, might be difficult if you can’t read emotions…
G.G.: Cinema’s one of my biggest hobbies! Action movies are perfect for me. I also like science fiction. But comedies, dramas, love stories – all that neurotypical stuff – I don’t understand it! It’s a foreign language which I don’t speak.
I also love reading books for facts and watching documentaries. And making music – I’ve played the electric guitar for about ten years. I play metal. Iron Maiden are the best band in the world! Up the Irons!
swissinfo.ch: You like reading books, can you imagine writing one?
G.G.: Definitely. A project I have in mind is turning my blog into a book.
swissinfo.ch: Do you meet up and socialise with other people with Asperger’s?
G.G.: No. I have enough of Asperger’s during the day. On my floor there are only people with Asperger’s. In my private life I have no contact with Asperger’s. I have almost no contact with other people in general, except my wife.
swissinfo.ch: Is she autistic too?
G.G.: No. She had to learn a lot. But once she had read up about Asperger’s, she said ‘OK, that’s what you have, I don’t care, I love you as you are and if there’s something strange, I’ll ask you’.
We’ve been together nearly a year. One of the secrets is that we don’t live together: she lives here, near Bern, and I live near Aarau. I’d previously gone out with someone for 11 years, living together for nearly ten. Then I was diagnosed and she moved out, saying she couldn’t live with me knowing that I couldn’t learn things that were important to her. I had to accept that, and that’s why I told my wife right at the start that I had Asperger’s.
Now I have a jackpot job and a jackpot wife! For me it’s the perfect mixture of a work-life balance.