Laura Nagle loves physics. She peruses scientific papers for her own enjoyment, and she can sometimes work out the answers to cosmological mysteries in her head when she watches documentaries about the universe. She has read, in her estimation, about 12,000 books.
You might say Nagle, 58, is a geek. But if you knew that she also has had severe problems communicating with others throughout her life, and had trouble in school because she’s not “well-rounded,” you might guess that she also has autism.
“I find that physics, engineering – these things speak to my heart, and I see details, relationships and patterns that most people don’t,” says Nagle, who lives near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Nagle’s experience speaks to a pervasive stereotype in popular culture that people with high-functioning autism – a form of which is called Asperger’s syndrome – are geeks.
As with most generalizations, it excludes a vast swath of people on the autism spectrum who don’t fit it – plenty have interests or talents in the arts or literature, and don’t care at all about traditionally geeky pursuits such as computers, science and technology.
But it’s worth looking at why this image of the geek with autism has emerged, and exploring the realities of how autism and talent intertwine. Understanding the condition better is ever more important as the number of people with autism rises. The main signs and symptoms of the condition are communication problems, poor social interactions and repetitive behaviors.
Just last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that an estimated one in 88 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder. A person who has high-functioning autism and did not have a childhood delay in cognitive or language development would get a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, although this distinction is likely to disappear in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States.
While more and more American children are found to have an autism spectrum disorder, speculation has abounded about brilliant historical figures and fictional characters having it, too.
Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, both fundamental in shaping the way we understand the universe, had characteristics of Asperger’s, researchers have postulated.
Then there’s TV – take Sheldon Cooper, a character from “The Big Bang Theory.” (Although the show’s writers have said that the character does not have Asperger’s syndrome, actor Jim Parsons told Variety that he views his role as in line with the condition.) And people with Asperger’s have connected with the quirky behaviors of Dr. House from “House, M.D.” and Temperance “Bones” Brennan of “Bones,” although these characters have not received formal diagnoses. (For that matter, another doctor on “House, M.D.” once concluded that House is simply a jerk.)
All of these characters seem obsessed with scientific inquiry, but they struggle with effective communication or maintaining relationships. (Not to mention Abed from "Community" - he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction, but asked in a recent episode, "Is this a social cue?")
“[Viewers] could look at any of these characters who are ostensibly Aspies, and they could think that we have no passion because sometimes our language doesn’t seem to convey deep emotions, and we are doing things that most people do not seem to find inspiring of passion,” Nagle said.
And Nagle doesn’t mind that the public associates genius characters with autism – to her, they represent an idea she’s passionate about: That there’s room in this world for everyone, regardless of their quirks and social deficits.
“You get this idea that even if Sheldon is not a party guy, even if Sheldon is not the guy you’d want to have trying to repair your car, that maybe it’s important to have a theoretical physicist or two,” she said.
Others say the stereotype of the Asperger’s scientific genius is unfortunate; that it overshadows the fact that many people with high-functioning autism have talents in arts and literature instead, says Teresa Bolick, a licensed psychologist who specializes in neurodevelopmental disorders. And some are not geniuses per se, they are simply fixated on specific interests.
In other words, not all smart people have Asperger’s, and not all people with Asperger’s have great talents. The diagnosis requires that the person have some kind of social impairment – for instance, lack of eye contact, and not being able to interpret facial expressions, gestures and figurative speech. So a physics genius who gets along well with everyone may well not have autism.
A genetic basis for both scientific talent and autism?
There may still be an underlying connection between scientific talents and autism, however.
More study is needed to back up this theory, but one hypothesis is that geeks and people with autism are linked genetically. British autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues published a study in 1997 suggesting that fathers and grandfathers of children with autism were more likely to work in the field of engineering, compared with fathers and grandfathers of neurotypical children.
The researchers are expanding upon their study to see if people who are good at computers and science are generally more likely to have a child with autism.
“One possibility is that the very same genes that give rise to autism, in a less severe combination, might also be giving rise to talent in the general population,” said Baron-Cohen, who is a first cousin of the comedian and actor Sacha.
A larger combination of those genes could give rise to more severe forms of autism, Baron-Cohen speculated. And it could be that people who carry those genes, being similar in personality and interests, have a greater likelihood of marrying each other.
“If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley,” Temple Grandin, a best-selling author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who has autism, said in a TED talk in 2010.
Although these ideas have gained traction, they aren’t based on proven scientific facts; further research is necessary to support these conclusions.
And keep in mind that as awareness grows about autism, doctors have realized that intellectual disability in autism is nowhere near 70%, as was previously thought – it’s only around 30%, Dr. Gary Goldstein, president of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, told CNN.
A darker side of the stereotype
Meanwhile, the false notion that all people with high-functioning autism are talented in the sciences persists culturally – and that may have a detrimental effect on parents.
“Many of us in the autism community, with official diagnoses, are often asked ‘What’s your special science ability?’ says Christopher Scott Wyatt, assistant professor of English at Robert Morris University. “I say, ‘I teach poetry.’ "
When speaking about autism, Wyatt, who has high-functioning autism, often fields questions from parents of children on the spectrum who wonder when they will see a math or science ability come through. The answer is: Many children don’t have it. The stereotype of the geek with autism has this downside of making parents concerned if their children with the condition don’t excel at science.
“It leads to assumptions of magical abilities,” he said. “They’re expected to have traits they don’t have.”
Gretchen Leary, 26, of Boston, has Asperger’s syndrome and, like Wyatt, her passion is for writing, not the physical sciences. She also has other narrowly focused interests, such as Latin and marine biology. But although she’s not a tech geek per se, her job involves data entry and other repetitive tasks that appeal to her cravings for order and familiarity. See her iReport
Nagle also has particularities about things that are familiar – if you want to kick her out of a room, “paint it lavender,” she says.
So what is the difference between being a geek and having Asperger’s?
Experts are quick to point out that autism is a medical diagnosis, and “geek” is not – of course.
And in order to receive a diagnosis, a person must see a doctor, probably because he or she is suffering in some way. Being a geek is a cultural description, not a medical condition.
People with high-functioning autism may become depressed because they are failing at relationships or jobs, or anxious because of their social interactions. They may have severe difficulties communicating with other people that have led to troubles at home or the workplace. Leary says she’s had many misunderstandings with her spouse and still has more trouble with face-to-face communication than via phone.
Sensitivity to light and noise, another common feature of autism, has also been problematic for Leary. These sensory issues can also interfere with children’s socialization. Crowded, bright places like shopping malls, where young people often hang out, can feel overwhelming and isolate those who don’t want to be there, said Bolick, the psychologist.
Underlying the interests of many people with Asperger’s is a fascination with systems, Baron-Cohen said. Sometimes, that can be advantageous and could help start careers, such as in software engineering or physics. But sometimes, people who have autism fixate on activities that do not have immediate practical applications – for instance, collecting coffee cups.
“Many folks with Asperger’s are able to give remarkable attention to whatever problem they’re interested in,” Bolick said.
Turning a disability around
In some cases, people on the autism spectrum have talents or interests that could become part of a profession, but they’re not thinking in those terms.
“For many people with autism, the reason why they have their obsessions is not because of financial gain. They’re doing it because of intrinsic motivation,” Baron-Cohen said. “The idea that they could make it useful may not even occur to them.”
Wyatt, for example, writes a lot but doesn’t publish. “My wife keeps saying, ‘You should send this to someone,’ but why?” he says.
One man with Asperger’s whom Baron-Cohen met had a desire to understand changes in weather patterns. He’d go out into his garden at midnight every night to measure temperature, wind speed and other related weather factors. He wasn’t trying to use the information like a meteorologist; he just wanted to know.
Similarly, a young patient of Bolick’s would diligently do his homework but not turn it in. When she asked him about it, he stood straight up and said, “I don’t do my homework to get good grades. I do my homework to learn.”
But this problem of not finding practical uses for interests varies widely; some people with autism are markedly driven to achieve, and do. Other times, success is hindered by difficulty in planning and organizing, another common feature of autism spectrum disorders. These are areas that teachers and coaches can help with, Bolick said. Grandin has also spoken out about the need for these mentors to help people with autism develop their talents and use their interests in meaningful ways.
And organizations are starting to take note of certain strengths that a person with high-functioning autism might bring. The nonprofit Aspiritech, based in Highland Park ,Illinois, provides opportunities for people on the Asperger’s spectrum to become software testers, a profession that harnesses their “attention to detail, precision, an affinity for repetitive tasks, outstanding technology skills.”
“This is the kind of disability which could be turned around, so that something that seems to be interfering with the person’s life could transform their life,” Baron-Cohen said. “The obsessions could be a stepping stone or a passport into more opportunities.”
Toward a better future for the next generation
Doug Sparling, 52, of Kansas City, Missouri, chose his job in software engineering because of his Asperger’s. Human interaction, especially when working on a project closely with a partner, can trigger anxiety for him. But he loves electronics, logic and solving problems.
In information technology, he can follow those passions while largely having the solitude he wants. He works more than 40 hours a week, but on a flexible schedule, and works from home a lot.
“Coding is something I get ‘lost’ in, it's a world where I lose track of time,” he said in an e-mail.
Sparling is married with four children, including a 23-year-old stepson and a 12-year-old son with Asperger’s.
Nagle’s story is different. If she’d had supportive, encouraging teachers, coaches or advocates, Nagle believes, she would have turned her passion for physics into a career, too.
During her second year of college, a counselor told her that her grant would be cut and her work-study hours cut in half. And instead of questioning it or investigating other scholarship opportunities, she quit school and began one of many jobs she didn’t enjoy.
She has worked in architecture and structural engineering, but never finished college. She now lives in a mobile home provided to her. She is heavily involved in autism advocacy and is working on a documentary to be released this year.
When Nagle gives talks about autism, she tells her audience she hopes that none of the young people with autism today end up like herself.
She says: “I don’t want them being 58 years old, homeless [if not for] favors, not able to take care of their teeth, and looking back on lives in which they haven’t accomplished what they could have accomplished."