Bill Gates is the co-founder of Microsoft, the computer operating systems software company. Along with Paul Allen, he started the venture in 1975. The duo went on to revolutionise the world of microcomputers via their software applications through the 1970s and 1980s. Gates was in various positions at senior management level in the company between 1975 and 2014; he acted as Chairman, CEO, President and then in more of a technical role as Chief Software Architect over that period. As the long-time richest man in the world with tens of billions of dollars-worth of personal wealth, he shifted to a part-time advisory role at Microsoft in 2006 in order to pursue charity projects through the Bill and Melinda Gates’ Foundation. In 2014, he transitioned into a full-time role at the foundation to dedicate himself to philanthropy.
Ironically, many people who have met Gates or have worked with him suspect that he might be autistic. As is typical of many mavericks of Silicon Valley, he is often distant and distracted in conversation with others, he seems to have few interests but is incredibly specialised at them and sometimes behaves erratically.
Let’s take a more systematic look at the personality traits of Bill Gates and see how he matches up to ASD symptoms.
What are the symptoms of autism?
According to the NHS website, some of the common signs of autism in adults include aspects of cognitive processing, a need for familiarity or certainty, and social / communication challenges:
- noticing small details, patterns, smells or sounds that others do not
- having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes
- having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities
- liking to plan things carefully before doing them
- finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling
- getting very anxious about social situations
- finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own
- seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to
- finding it hard to say how you feel
- taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”
- not understanding social “rules”, such as not talking over people
- avoiding eye contact
- getting too close to other people, or getting very upset if someone touches or gets too close to you
Let’s deal with each of those in turn, with a pool of quotes from Gates. Credit to Business Insider , ZDNet.com, Inc.com and Wikipedia for this collection of quotations.
Bill Gates is autistic: the case for
Noticing small details, patterns, smells or sounds that others do not:
In a Business Insider article, Gates’ attention to detail bordered the maniacal: “During the first few decades of Microsoft’s existence, there are many stories about how involved Bill Gates was in pretty much every aspect of the business. He apparently reviewed every single line of code personally for the first five years of the company’s existence.”
Having a very keen interest in certain subjects or activities:
In an article about “focus” for Forbes, Rainer Zitelman draws on research about Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs and their obsessive tendencies. Gates admitted that he had been obsessed with computers since he was 13, “I mean, then I became hard core. It was day and night.” His parents were worried about him, “Although he was only in the ninth grade, he already seemed obsessed with the computer, ignoring everything else, staying out all night.” In the end, they ordered him to give up computers, which he managed to do for about nine months. In the words of Bill Gates Jr.’s college roommate, Andy Braiterman, “Bill had a monomaniacal quality […] He would focus on something and really stick with it. He had a determination to master whatever it was he was doing.” One of his ex-girlfriends described him as being extremely focused and intolerant of distractions. He didn’t own a television and had even dismantled his car radio. She elaborates: “In the end, it was difficult to sustain a relationship with someone who could boast a ‘seven-hour’ turnaround—meaning that from the time he left Microsoft to the time he returned in the morning was a mere seven hours.”
Liking to plan things carefully before doing them:
No hard evidence of this, but it is difficult to imagine the world’s richest man becoming so successful by accident! There certainly seems to have been much reflection before deciding to retain the intellectual property rights for the MS DOS operating system designed to run on IBM computers, as outlined in the 1996 book, “The Road Ahead”. Gates had suspected that other hardware companies would clone the IBM systems and the market would grow rapidly. This incredibly prescient decision was probably the key reason that Microsoft was able to grow to a global scale, as it allowed Gates et al to sell their software to any number of computer manufacturers, rather than be limited to only IBM.
Finding it hard to understand what others are thinking or feeling:
To an extent. Certainly in the early days, he was rude and impatient with colleagues and business partners whose thinking and work was at a level far below his own attention to detail and level of industry. Given Gates’ expertise and work ethic, it is not hard to see that most mere mortals that he came into contact with would struggle to live up to his own incredibly high standards. More recently though, his approach to business and life seems very much to have softened, undoubtedly at least in part due to a change in focus away from the business towards the foundation and how to help others.
Getting very anxious about social situations:
The younger Gates was indeed a self-confessed nerd. As recently as April 2019, Gates was asked in a Reddit AMA if there was any advice he would give his younger self if he could go back in time. “I was overly intense and socially inept,” Gates said in the AMA. “I would try and make myself more self-aware without getting rid of the focus and desire to learn.” This social awkwardness carried on for a while into the Microsoft years. While Gates admits that he “wasn’t very good socially” in his early days at the helm of Microsoft (he stepped down as CEO in 2000), he says he probably just needed to mature. “Maybe I had to be awkward and just grow up,” Gates said in an earlier Reddit session in 2017.
Finding it hard to make friends or preferring to be on your own:
Gates had primary responsibility for Microsoft’s product strategy from the company’s founding in 1975 until 2006. He gained a reputation for being distant from others; an industry executive complained in 1981 that “Gates is notorious for not being reachable by phone and for not returning phone calls.”
Seeming blunt, rude or not interested in others without meaning to:
Gates met regularly with Microsoft’s senior managers and program managers, and the managers described him as being verbally combative. He also berated them for perceived holes in their business strategies or proposals that placed the company’s long-term interests at risk. He interrupted presentations with such comments as “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” and “why don’t you just give up your options and join the Peace Corps?” The target of his outburst would then have to defend the proposal in detail until Gates was fully convinced. When subordinates appeared to be procrastinating, he was known to remark sarcastically, “I’ll do it over the weekend.”
Finding it hard to say how you feel:
This is a difficult one to call. Choosing not to reveal too much about his own emotions and personal feelings may be a choice rather than a challenge for him. This is particularly probable given his massive profile as the founder of the world’s largest software companies. Former CEO of Yahoo, Carol Bartz, suggests in an interview on the Freakonomics podcast that CEOs tend to be very unrevealing in interviews for one of 3 reasons. Either (1) they are really boring, (2) they have been advised or instructed by the board to be discreet, or (3) they are scared of saying the wrong thing. Too much information about the company’s activities could be seen as manipulation of the market and draw regulatory interest, or a controversial opinion may invite a social media backlash and depress the company share price. Also; he seems at ease with his status as one of the world’s most famous nerds. In a televised Q&A with ABC Australia Gates demonstrates enough self-awareness to agree with the assertion that he is an introvert. “I think introverts can do quite well,” says Gates. “If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert.”
Not understanding social “rules”, such as not talking over people:
Once upon a time yes. Now? Not so much. As you can see in the paragraph earlier in this piece, about him being verbally combative. However, in his GatesNotes video interview with Tara Westover about her book, “Educated” he has clearly softened his approach and gives his guest plenty of encouragement to talk at length.Considering that he was known to interrupt people mid-presentation with comments such as, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he has come a long way. If he can learn to make people feel that their ideas and stories are worth listening to, then anyone can.
Bill Gates is autistic: the case against
Having the same routine every day and getting very anxious if it changes:
Like most top CEOs, Gates has a very organised schedule. According to The Telegraph, his schedule is broken up into five-minute intervals — Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk does the same. Every moment is carefully planned. It’s a jam-packed routine, but the billionaire keeps track of his plans and ideas by jotting down notes. When it comes to lunch, Gates has one favourite meal in particular. In a Reddit AMA, the billionaire responded “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger” to a question about his favourite sandwich. He also makes time each day to read the broadsheet headlines, read books and even do the dishes! Yet, for all this repetition, he has stepped down from the roles of CEO and Chairman of Microsoft to throw himself more completely into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which donates money to research and charitable organisations. His daily routine within the foundation is often quite busy and varied, as he travels the world and launches new initiatives. This level of change would be nearly impossible if he was compulsive about daily habits.
Getting too close to other people, or getting very upset if someone touches or gets too close to you:
No real evidence of this.
Taking things very literally – for example, you may not understand sarcasm or phrases like “break a leg”:
There is no evidence of this. In fact, the quote above about nerds being just fine, thank you very much: “I think introverts can do quite well,” was delivered (from the richest man on earth) with a wry smile and triggered a growing ripple of laughter from the (mainly student) audience he was addressing at the ABC Australia live studio interview. Such a subtle turn of phrase would indicate he understands irony just fine!
Avoiding eye contact:
Mostly not. One very notable (and public) exception was during the United States vs Microsoft Corp antitrust case. The software producer was accused way back in 1999 of acting in a way which was anti-competitive through its bundling together of its browser software with its operating system software, making it very difficult for companies offering either one of those products to compete. During those proceedings, Bill Gates was called as a witness and his body language and general demeanour was, at best, disengaged. “Gates’ body language spoke volumes as he went out of his way to avoid eye contact. At times combative and pouty, Gates came across as a hair-splitting nebbish who was spectacularly uninformed about critical decisions governing the company’s relationship with Apple Computer — if you believe the act.” The last words of the quote from ZDNet.com’s Charles Cooper tell us all we need to know. In the opinion of the reporter, this was not Gates’ normal demeanour, but an attempt to undermine the prosecution’s attempt to portray him as a criminal mastermind.
Is Bill Gates autistic? The verdict
Based on this evidence? No.
He is fanatical about detail (like any software programmer), has obsessive tendencies over his favourite subjects (ahem: computers?), is extremely logical and likes to plan meticulously. He was, in his early life, socially awkward and lacked empathy with others, he was uninterested in other people and was perhaps quite emotionally guarded, notably once he became the high-profile boss of the world’s largest software company.
His daily routine has some pattern but is now so varied that any compulsions about quotidian matters would make his work at the foundation impossible. There is no suggestion that he is preoccupied with personal space or has sensory issues. He seems to understand and use irony just fine, thank you very much. And other than when his company was being sued by the US government, his body language could not be described as evasive.