At Michelle Winner’s social-skills clinic in San Jose, Calif., business is booming. Every week dozens of youngsters with Asperger syndrome file in and out of therapy sessions while their anxious mothers run errands or chat quietly in the waiting room. In one session, a rosy-cheeked 12-year-old struggles to describe the emotional reactions of a cartoon character in a video clip; in another, four little boys (like most forms of autism, Asperger’s overwhelmingly affects boys) grapple with the elusive concept of teamwork while playing a game of 20 Questions. Unless prompted to do so, they seldom look at one another, directing their eyes to the wall or ceiling or simply staring off into space.
Yet outside the sessions the same children become chatty and animated, displaying an astonishing grasp of the most arcane subjects. Transformer toys, video games, airplane schedules, star charts, dinosaurs. It sounds charming, and indeed would be, except that their interest is all consuming. After about five minutes, children with Asperger’s, a.k.a. the “little professor” or “geek” syndrome, tend to sound like CDs on autoplay. “Did you ask her if she’s interested in astrophysics?” a mother gently chides her son, who has launched into an excruciatingly detailed description of what goes on when a star explodes into a supernova.
Although Hans Asperger described the condition in 1944, it wasn’t until 1994 that the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized Asperger syndrome as a form of autism with its own diagnostic criteria. It is this recognition, expanding the definition of autism to include everything from the severely retarded to the mildest cases, that is partly responsible for the recent explosion in autism diagnoses.
There are differences between Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. Among other things, Asperger’s appears to be even more strongly genetic than classic autism, says Dr. Fred Volkmar, a child psychiatrist at Yale. About a third of the fathers or brothers of children with Asperger’s show signs of the disorder. There appear to be maternal roots as well. The wife of one Silicon Valley software engineer believes that her Asperger’s son represents the fourth generation in just such a lineage. It was the Silicon Valley connection that led Wired magazine to run its geek-syndrome feature last December. The story was basically a bit of armchair theorizing about a social phenomenon known as assortative mating. In university towns and R.-and-D/ corridors, it is argued, smart but not particularly well-socialized men today are meeting and marrying women very like themselves, leading to an overload of genes that predispose their children to autism, Asperger’s and related disorders.
Is there anything to this idea? Perhaps. There is no question that many successful people — not just scientists and engineers but writers and lawyers as well — possess a suite of traits that seem to be, for lack of a better word, Aspergery. The ability to focus intensely and screen out other distractions, for example, is a geeky trait that can be extremely useful to computer programmers. On the other hand, concentration that is too intense — focusing on cracks in the pavement while a taxi is bearing down on you — is clearly, in Darwinian terms, maladaptive.
But it may be a mistake to dwell exclusively on the genetics of Asperger’s; there must be other factors involved. Experts suspect such variables as prenatal positioning in the womb, trauma experienced at birth or random variation in the process of brain development may also play a role. Even if you could identify the genes involved in Asperger’s, it’s not clear what you would do about them. It’s not as if they are lethal genetic defects, like the ones that cause Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. “Let’s say that a decade from now we know all the genes for autism,” suggests Bryna Siegel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “And let’s say your unborn child has four of these genes. We may be able to tell you that 80% of the people with those four genes will be fully autistic but that the other 20% will perform in the gifted mathematical range.”
Filtering the geeky genes out of high-tech breeding grounds like Silicon Valley, in other words, might remove the very DNA that made these places what they are today.