Geekiness and autism: Is there a connection?
Laura Nagle, 58, loves science but has struggled with communication all her life.
April 23rd, 2012
02:58 PM ET

Geekiness and autism: Is there a connection?

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.

Diagnosing genius

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."

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  5. Dana Reinecke

    The important thing to take away from this article is that people with autism are individuals, just like everyone else! Autism is a spectrum disorder, so there are some people who are diagnosed with autism who require much more support than others. As for personal preferences and strengths, there is every reason to expect that some people with autism will like science and some will like poetry. The important thing to remember is that individuals with autism can learn and grow and accomplish their goals. It might take longer, it might be harder, it might require individualization, patience, and perseverance, but people with autism can make the most of the opportunities that are given to them, with the proper support and encouragement.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  6. Tammi Boone

    My son has Aspergers. He is 12 yrs old. When he was a baby he didn't like being held. I would give him massages and every morning I would have to lay him down to breast feed him. I would hold him close and just rub his back and hold him. At first it was a battle, but after awhile he didn't mind me holding him. He would get sick in restaurants because of smells and crowds so I just kept him out of those environments until he was older. He is sensitive to light, put's his head down all the time. His dad is a musician and custom wood worker. My son will not go in my husband's shop because of noise. He does not like loud noises and will covers his ears. I have noticed that he is doing it less. My problem is his teachers. When he went into 6th grade they told me at the beginning of the year that he was in 6th grade and would have to do things on his own. He does have an inclusion teacher and is allowed to take test in a another room away from distractions. It's a daily battle getting the teachers to help him write down his homework and make sure he brings home books needed for homework. When school lets out, I wait for for him inside the school and make sure he has everything he needs, but I am very frustrated with teachers. They really don't care and I am afraid they are doing damage. There is no other school where I live that I can take him too. I'm desperate for help. I love my son and just want him to be able to have as normal a life as he can. I know he can learn but finding teachers that do more good than harm is hard to find. At 12 he is very loving and will hug you. He still doesn't look up and has trouble with eye contact. and communication. I have watched him on the school playground, walking alone and not playing with anyone. He has no friends. He has problems with keeping his feet on the floor. One year his teachers tied his legs to the chair and made him sit on a cushion trying to stop him. I found out about this while talking to a inclusion teacher and it upset me. They didn't discuss the with me before doing it. I didn't agree with the method, but there's no one here to tell you the right and wrong ways of dealing with Aspergers. He has a photographic memory and when I help him study he make A's on his test. He will do homework and not turn it in and the teachers just give him a zero. I'm so frustrated and am opened to suggestions. He is not loud, he is very quiet. He is not medicated and never has been,

    April 26, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • TH

      My son was diagnosed at age 7. He is now 13 years old. The school was concerned with Jacob in K and 1st grade. So i decided to get him evaluated since ASD runs in the family. I did not know much about it and called my EAP (Employee Assistance Program). They help with personal concerns in life. I went to a psychologist who was knowledgable with Austism Spectrum to have him evaluated and they confirmed he had aspergers. He had all the traits. At the psychologist office, my son went through Neurofeedback aka brain training for two years. It worked for him. We saw positive changes. He left there two years later more confident and some of social skills came to light like talking. He talks to adults more then his classmates. After he received his diagnosis, my next step was to send the diagnosed letter from the doctor to the School District Office and request they evaluate him and provide him with an IEP – Individual Education Plan. Ever since we had the IEP in place, it has turned my son's school experience to positive. Every year, we meet as a team with all his teachers, counselor and principal to talk about my son and his IEP. I also request end of the year conferences. He currently gets speech for pragmatic skills, social group, special instruction for Math, mainstream for rest of his classes with aide. I also had him evaluated at an Occupational Therapist and handed the evaluation to the school and requested they evaluate him and provied Occupational Therapy. He rec'd it for one year in 5th grade which was helpful plus we had him go outside of school. His support teacher and/or aides always helped to make sure he had his assignments written down in his assighment book which was always discussed at his IEP meetings. He is now in 7th grade and it's much better. He remembers most of the time. My son was never medicated. We decided that it was in our best interest to help our son outside of the school in conjunction with requesting help from the school. Have everything in writing and present to the school. As I mentioned, I did not know anything about this subject or what was offered from the government.

      April 26, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
    • KWork

      I have four sons who all have Asperger's traits to some degree. I have experienced many of the same things you have and my heart goes out to you. I realized that I couldn't rely on teachers to really help much. I homeschooled for one year after bullying got so bad at one point that one of my sons fell into depression. We worked on finding things he could excel at during that year(we gave him drum and piano lessons) and feel confident with and encouraged him to work toward reintegrating into the public schools. He went back to public schools the next year and has been heavily involved in the band ever since. This interaction gives him experience socially as well as academically and artistically. I've found that if I give my sons specific goals, it helps them stretch outside their comfort zone. With one of my sons I would give him daily goals to say hello to a teacher, or sit by a certain friend, or talk with someone in particular and then would follow up with him later in the day to see how he did. I always explained the benefits for their future and my belief that they could do this and that anxiety is natural, but conquerable. My goal has been to help them to be able to be self sufficient and to have healthy relationships, so that has required me to do things differently with my children than others would do with theirs. This focus has caused me to really break things down into simple steps, so that I don't assume they can handle the most basic of tasks. For some of my kids, they have to have the baby steps. I've even written out dialog for phone calls and then stood by them as they made the call. Whatever they needed to succeed. Please know that you know what is best for your child and that may mean going the extra 10 miles when others don't understand. Keep your vision intact and your focus on what you know to be right for him. You will have to teach others about your son and what he needs, including teachers. They may never catch the same vision, but they will be enlightened at the very least. Don't give up. Your son is worth it.

      April 26, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
    • Adiel

      Arizona Connections Academy. Its a virtual public charter school. I have had similar problems with my son and I just got fed up and decided that no one can teach him better life experience with compassion than I can. He is gifted as well and now he has the ability to move forwards or linger on hard subjects. he is going to get one on one attention now. I love it.
      Good luck.

      April 27, 2012 at 1:28 am |
  7. Lauren

    I think its great that people are talking about autism so feverishly, but its reached the a magical point that can be where it stops being helpful and starts getting murky. I have worked with a wide range of special needs children almost my entire working career...I also have family members with autism. I have seen the classic "Idiot Savant"-which is a term I detest, I have also seen kids that have a few bad behaviors here and there so there parents expect them to be diagnosed with something.

    My problem with the spectrum is that if you have a mild sensory disorder it is NOTHING like severe autism. I've had kids with "autism" learn to potty train themselves, they learn consequence, they can speak and be touched, meet most major developmental markers–but because they are a little (and I mean a little) socially awkward they are labeled as autistic and treated like a delicate flower that will wilt if you touch it instead of a kid with a weird and wonderful personality-this personality is nothing like the child who cant be touched, screams out if people huddle around them, wears a weighted vest for comfort instead of mom's hugs....nothing a like, but they are lumped together because of the label "autism"....I think it takes away from the kids that are SEVERELY autistic, those respective parents go through completely different struggles as do their teachers and loved ones. The spectrum is too wide be labeling everyone with a strange personality tick autistic–which is why 1 and 150 kids are "autistic" now. I think its sad and I think its a label kids will need to take with them their whole life (because there is NO cure only best management and coping–I don't care what Jenny McCarthy says) and these kids shouldn't be labeled if they don't have to be. People are weird, they are smart, they are wonderful, and everyone is different and we don't need to label it-we need to celebrate it!

    April 26, 2012 at 11:52 am |
    • krista

      Very well said. Too many kids have a "diagnosis". We all are unique and have our own quirks. And we all have to learn to get along in society.. and being handled with kid gloves by those around them, does NOT help children learn. (Severe autism NOT included)

      April 26, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
    • Adiel

      Well I see what you are trying to point out, but also keep in mind that my high functioning twice exceptional child who has Asperger's needs special assistance. Yes he does not have to wear a weighted vests and does not have a learning disability, but he does have fits of anxiety caused from social interactions that cause him to vomit. His reactions and interactions with people cause severe problems with bullying issues and social isolation.

      I get very frustrated with educators that work with children like my son who try to say that my son has an Emotional Disorder not a Learning Disorder. They try to disregard his medical diagnosis and classify him a "quirky" child. Never mind that he cannot stand wearing certain types of clothing and literally has fits, refuses to do work that is too hard and has melt downs, if schedules change he has severe anxiety. That is just a drop in the bucket of his "quirks".

      Because he "functions" and is able to speak and interact, is intelligent and classified as gifted, he is not worthy of a diagnosis of Asperger's? That is preposterous. Some people see him as a quirky kid, but to me he is my son and in great need of redirection and assistance that a medical diagnosis affords him.

      April 27, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Sarah

      While I agree that a distinction is to be made between those with severe autism and high-functioning autistics/Aspies, limiting medical diagnoses to only the most severe of cases would hurt the millions of kids who are high-functioning but cannot succeed or be happy in this world without more help. My brother is an Aspie in ninth grade who, to be honest, is impossible to live with most days. He's rude and condescending and treats my mom, who spends her entire life trying to help him, like she's not a human being. But when he tries, he is one of the sweetest, most sympathetic people I know. But he gets bullied at school and has had a lot of trouble in the past with teachers and the school. The one thing that turned the situation around for him (and us) was an official diagnosis and an IEP. Since then, our school district has been great about accommodating and supporting him, though the kids on his grade still torment him. Without his diagnosis and the help of the school and tutors, he probably would have dropped out of school by now.

      May 2, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • OrdinaryAutist

      In response to Lauren's definition of 'severely autistic': "the child who cant be touched, screams out if people huddle around them, wears a weighted vest for comfort instead of mom's hugs"

      I don't like to be touched. I extricate myself if my personal space is being compromised by a crowd. Heavy blankets – love 'em. While I have an Asperger's diagnosis, am verbal and of at least an average IQ, I have sensory, social, and executive function issues that place me somehwere between being moderately and severely autistic, which has made holding a job impossible. I've drawn disability since my 20s. I'm in my 40s now. I didn't have a problem with potty training, and I internalized rather than externalized my reactions to overload. I also do not have Intellectual Disability as a co-morbid to Autism. Formerly termed Mental Retardation, it is this which makes potty training diffcult if not impossible. It is this which deprives a person of problem-solving capacity to deal with life's frustrations in a manner other than screaming. As touched on in this article, it used to be thought that 70% of autists also had ID, but now that percentage has been discovered to be closer to 30%. There has been a problem with people conflating ID with autistic severity in the past (and in your reply, it seems). With the movement of ID to it's own disorder niche, to be seen as a possible but not mandatory co-morbid of Autism, there will be less such confusion.

      May 4, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  8. JJR

    I think I need to see someone about this. It may give me the answers I have been desperately seeking and explain why I am the way I am, since childhood and I am now 47... I don't and can't understand why I have certain gifted and abilities and don't know where they came from... All my friends said the same and also wonder. They love me regardless so, I think it's time to have myself check out for Asperger.... Hey it doesn't hurt to find out even at this age....

    April 26, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Helle

      Just turned 41.
      Found this page a few weeks ago. Am now aware of being an aspie (one week and 1 day)

      April 28, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
      • JJR

        Thank you so much Helle looking into it right now. God bless!

        April 28, 2012 at 9:54 pm |
  9. M.E.

    Just because someone dislikes big crowds and has a passion for something maketh not Aspergers. I think far too many garden variety geeks are diagnosed with something they don't actually have. I hate malls though I like shopping and can identify almost any synthpop track in the first few bars of music but I'm just a nerd, thank you. Sounds autistic but I'm certainly not.

    April 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  10. msp

    Humans are not discrete. We are all on a spectrum of sorts. No one fits neatly into predefined little slots. I truely beleive that your weekness is exactly your strength. The difference between success and failure is in your ability to harness your weekness(strength). Some people are able to focus better on specific things (e.g. poetry, physics), maybe to the detriment of others (e.g. social activities). It may not be genuis but the intense focus that produces the exceptional results. While others are less likely to direct their focus to more "useful" things, e.g. plastic cups.

    Like ALL children, their ability to live up to their potential (autism or not) depends heavily on their own and their parents' ability to direct their concentration. It is different but not more challenging. I would rather see less labeling and more focusing (punt intended) in directing these children.

    April 25, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  11. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    This article and the general nature of the comments posted here remind me of the old saying "You can make a lampshade out of a human being, but you can't make a human being out of a lampshade."


    April 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
  12. onceinabluesun

    Listen...regardless of your individual beliefs/non-beliefs, there is such a thing as common courtesy and human decency. This article is about REAL PEOPLE who have strengths, struggles and FEELINGS. Some of these comments are so disrespectful and judgmental of the people highlighted in this article and sometimes its just better to keep your negativity(or negative opinions) to yourself. I'm sure it means a lot to each and every one of these individuals to have the opportunity to share a tiny piece of their story with the public and if I were one of them I would be so hurt in reading many of these responses. No matter what you believe, keep in mind the fact that your words can be very hurtful to these – your fellow human beings.

    April 24, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
  13. Cheri MacLean

    Albert Einstein was known to be quite social and had multiple extramarital affairs – the point being that he had no real signs of social awkwardness or problems with relationships, other than those caused by infidelity. He was, quite simply, a genius, who saw physics in a way that no one else had seen before.

    Dr. House – and let's remember he is a fictional character – isn't socially awkward, he is a sadistic bully who probably has a narcissistic personality disorder. He also sees the human body in a way few others see it. That makes him excellent at diagnosis, although the candy-land of TV also has a lot to do with his so-called abilities.

    Neither of these men meet criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, or high-functioning autism.

    There is no DSM-IV diagnosis for genius, geek or bully.

    April 24, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  14. artsygirly

    I will say that the argument that autism and engineering is linked is very obvious in my husband's family. His father and both his uncles are engineers and they each have a son who has autism – moving from high function to low. Also, I would say as far as a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder which does not show the traditional career path of math, physics, or computer programing would be Temple Gardin. She is truly an influential figure and was able to create a whole new field due to her unique way of looking at the world.

    April 24, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
  15. BAH

    Having been married long term to someone who fits the Asperger's live a glove, I think there are major differences from those who recognize these traits in themselves and work around them compared to those in denial who decide that their "reality" must be for everyone or who fantasize as an escape from the frustration of their issues and believe that excuses them from basic human commitments like fidelity in marriage or being a decent parent. I disagree with labelling everyone Asperger's who is different. But I do think that labels can be freeing since they recognize differences and can help others realize that the person isn't "wierd" they are different.

    April 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
  16. Sarah

    April 24, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  17. jgn

    Jennifer, this is not meant to trivialize the need for treatment for those with acute autism. It's merely to point out that, for those in the much milder ranges or perhaps those who really don't have autism at all, the drugs can be very harmful and the treatments totally unnecessary.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  18. jgn

    'As the number of people with autism rises' should have read 'As the number of people DIAGNOSED with autism rises'. A critical distinction which has everything to do with the pharmaceutical professions finding new drugs they sell to those in the medical treatment professions.
    There are degrees to everything, and by no means should every degree of a condition be treated with drugs. Particularly here in America we have to be much more vigilant and do our own research to discover what works best for any 'condition' we might have rather than leaving it to the drug companies. Their only directive is to make a LOT of money, so beware!

    April 24, 2012 at 11:55 am |
  19. Khol

    It's not, really. It is Not a "disorder" it is just a different way of learning/perceiving. You might as well label red hair as a folicle disorder, and pale skin as a pigment disorder. Not everything is about right and wrong, good and evil, left and right. Somethings are just DIFFERENT. Not better, not worse, just not the Same. That IS okay.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:18 am |
    • Mceba

      Agreed. And people should definitely not approach an individual with Asperger’s syndrome with the intentions of socializing them, isolating them, or changing them in any way; rather help them to discover ways of ENHANCING their talents that benefit society as a whole in an environment adjusted to their needs. Simply because these individuals do not fit cultural or societal norms of socializing doesn't mean they should be outcasted.

      April 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
  20. Abphil

    Does this mean that half of Indian youngsters have Autism traits.

    April 24, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  21. linzzz016

    it seems like anyone who is highly intelligent and socially awkward is said to have some form of autism nowadays. ridiculous.

    April 24, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • yankegirl

      My son and the children dxed with autism that I know have serious neurological impairments that impact their ability to function independently. They are extremely stress sensitive. Some can't talk, they can't self-regulate, are often hyperactive and have extreme sensory senstivity especially to noise, touch, light and heat. Autism is not a quirky personality trait. It is a neurological disorder.

      April 24, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
  22. theresa

    All these diagnoses of autism are becoming a lot like astrology. The descriptions are so wide these days, we may all have the disorder. Kids used to be accepted as "just kids" for being imaginative & hyper or shy – now they just get diagnosed with a disorder. It's the drug companies behind it all, soon enough there will be a drug for every kind of autistic or ADHD "disorder", which, of course, in the end everybody has.

    April 24, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • jennifer

      Have you ever met an autistic child? I think that would change your mind.

      April 24, 2012 at 9:25 am |
      • MikeD

        I have had close contact with actual autism sufferers. It strengthens what theresa is saying. Read it again, please.

        April 24, 2012 at 10:22 am |
      • mary

        I too, probably have a child on the spectrum. My child also backs up what Theresa is saying.

        April 24, 2012 at 11:16 am |
    • jennifer

      I DO have a child on the spectrum, who does not take medication for it, and it is very evident that he is more than just hyper or shy. I do not think that the rise in diagnosed cases of autism is at the behest of drug companies. There is no drug for the treatment of autism. There are drugs that treat some of the manifest behaviors of autism. If you feel I am missing the point, by all means, clarify.

      April 24, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
      • Lisa

        I Agree with you Jennifer, I have a child that is on the spectum, he isn't on meds so the drug companys are not gaining anything from my child being diagnosed with ASD!

        April 26, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  23. OrdinaryAutist

    Autists are not the next evolutionary step, forward or backward. It takes all kinds in this world. Embrace genetic variance instead of trying to find a cure for it. Autism is not tragic – it is the response to it that is – a response that has left many of us by the wayside because the expectation is always for us to be something we are not. Experiencing the world as we do would go a long way toward getting some perspective.

    Example exercise you can do at home: Make a shirt out of a burlap sack. Douse it with noxious perfume and put it on over bare flesh. Take off all the lampshades/diffusers in your house, replace all the bulbs with 100w bulbs and turn them all on. You're going to need 4 or 5 radios. Put them in different parts of the house on different stations (talking is better). Turn them all up much louder than is comfortable. For bonus points, get a few strings of cheap LED Christmas lights (clear). String them up around where you'll be mostly as you weather this ordeal. Cheap LED light strings have a noticeable flicker, even for the less sensitive. For bonus bonus points, turn something on that will produce a constant high-pitched whine.

    Try to concentrate on something. When you've had enough, resist the urge to end the exercise. Instead, hold out longer and think about how you might feel if you couldn't tear off your stinky burlap shirt and turn off all the lights and radios and flickering LEDS and that high pitched whine...what you might do. Next time you see or read or hear about an autist having a meltdown, reflect on this experience.

    I personally wouldn't give up my sensory issues for anything though. I experience the world in exquisite detail. This ability I channel into my art. I may be useless as a cubicle dweller, but I have some use, I think.

    April 24, 2012 at 7:20 am |
    • Nefra

      Ordinary Autist, your suggestion/experiment is so true. At least for me. I keep trying to tell friends and family that the sensory issues are what makes me appear to be so odd and anti-social, but my explanations fall on dead ears. So-called "experts" in autism studies fail to understand how significant the sensory issues are. And arguing about fictional characters is taken more seriously than REAL autistic people. And to the non-believers I say this to you: We're here, we're weird - get over it! And nothing about us without us!

      April 24, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
    • Andrey

      Where do you get his chew necklaces? I have AS and need soenihmg like that myself. I find myself chewing on things without really notcing. I've destroyed countless wacom pens and chewing gum isn't the right consistancy. I need the sensation of something in my mouth. Your son is lucky to have a mother like you who truely cares about his well being and dosen't throw him away in an instution or group home.VA:F [1.9.15_1155]please wait...VA:F [1.9.15_1155](from 0 votes)

      May 24, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  24. Floyd Schrodinger

    Now we have one more way to discriminate. If you're smart, you must be mentally ill. No wonder sports players are called gods and scientists are called nerds. No brains = good. Brains = bad. The worst part is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging this way of thinking by labeling every "normal" human trait a condition or syndrome.
    How are our children going to learn anything in schools if the first thing an intelligent child is told is that they're sick.

    April 24, 2012 at 7:15 am |
    • jennifer

      Autism is NOT a mental illness. It is a developmental disorder.

      April 24, 2012 at 9:24 am |
  25. BiteMeExtroverts

    Ah yes, the disease-ification of personality traits! If I were a parent of a truly autistic child; i.e. who will require cradle-to-grave care and feeding, I would be incensed at the research dollars and attention being funneled away from my very real problem to study the "problems" of Asperger's people!

    Don't like rambunctious, troublesome children? Label them ADD and make them take drugs for the rest of their lives!

    Don't like introverted, brainy people? Label them Asperger's!

    These aren't disease states. These are personality types which we find scary/inconvenient.

    April 24, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • OrdinaryAutist

      You didn't get the part where it has been discovered that 30% rather than 70% of autists have Intellectual Disability as a co-morbid. It is those with severe ID who require cradle-to-grave care and feeding, but ID is not specific to autism. People can have ID and not be autistic at all. But ID or no, there are shared traits across the autistic spectrum.

      April 24, 2012 at 7:27 am |
    • joesix

      I'd agree with you that Asperger's seems more like a personality type (especially when reading the DSM criteria for it). But as someone diagnosed with Asperger's myself, I can tell you that just having that label, to know that there's countless other freaks out there with the same social impediments, can be a powerful and invigorating thing.

      April 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm |
  26. J

    The Big Bang Theory writers never said Sheldon does not have Asperger's, what they said is that they have not written his character with Asperger's in mind, or written any kind of Asperger's diagnosis, clinically qualified or not, into the storyline. This was because they did not want to be restricted by having to conform to diagnostic criteria in developing Sheldon's character, in order to satisfy the desire of certain viewers to see Asperger's portrayed correctly.

    April 24, 2012 at 6:33 am |
  27. Whiskey

    Once again the media uses the word "Geek" when it means "Nerd" and has no idea which is which. Come on, people. It's 2012.

    April 24, 2012 at 3:42 am |
  28. Jim Stanek

    Why write a fugging doctoral thesis on the topic? CNN is so lame.

    Pander to geeks in one article, insult them in the next. Simply by stating that there IS a stereotype that "geeks" are "autistic" CNN is attempting to further the stereotype and prey off their "geek" readers' negative self-images.

    Please do not subscribe to CNN's load of bull which they call news.

    Boycott CNN.

    Tell you kids, significant other, co-workers, clients, and students to boycott this den of yellow journalism and insincerity.

    Boycott CNN. And force them to use INTEGRITY in the news.

    Support NPR.

    THAT is power to the people.

    April 24, 2012 at 3:21 am |
    • P

      I see reading comprehension is not one of your abilities.

      April 24, 2012 at 5:18 am |
    • Eliora

      What are you talking about? I love the dumb things posted here! There is no other place you can find them.... 🙂

      April 24, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  29. james A.

    I am definitely no expert, but I do have a theory about all of this: Maybe we are witnessing human evolution in progress right before our eyes. As human societies become more and more complex, the necessity to delegate specialized tasks has become so strong that nature is intervening. This is just a thought, so don’t take my head off.

    April 24, 2012 at 1:46 am |
    • Doug

      I disagree with your evolution concept, because social skills are more needed than ever in the modern world, and people who lack them are at a significant disadvantage regardless of their specialization in other areas. However, I do believe that we (autistics) do not have anything significantly wrong with us. We think differently from other people, but except in extreme cases it is no big deal. We go to college, we get jobs, we tend to be good at them, and we pay our taxes. I can't speak for others, but I actually have difficulty with the concept of "goofing off" at work. Why do things that make the day feel longer? Keeping busy makes the time pass, but I digress. My main point is we're not some next step, but we don't need to be cured either.

      April 24, 2012 at 3:13 am |
      • OrdinaryAutist

        You say you can't speak for others, but you just did. You lumped all but the most "extreme cases" of autism into this perfect category of uber humanity who all go to college, get (high paying) jobs as a result of that college education, and then pay a lot of taxes on the paychecks we get from the jobs we do so well and don't goof off on. PuLease! You must be on the very mild end of the spectrum. The other extreme, IMO.

        April 24, 2012 at 7:38 am |
      • yankegirl

        Autism, which can be very debilitating, does not favor the ability to compete or survive so why are the numbers soaring when they should be decreasing?

        April 24, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Ah-tistic

      I am glad that you are taking the time to think things over a bit. I approve. Not like you need my approval, of course.

      With that out of the way, I would only like to offer my opinion that severe autism has been around throughout recorded history.
      The biggest difference between then and now is that the field of psychology has grown tremendously in numbers, peer-review, and medical knowledge.
      This is why this flavor-of-the-week human interest story, even though a better one than most, gives some people the false impression that the subject matter is news because the science is still feeling its way through neuro-psychology.

      So, humans can show with their recorded history, and eventually, I predict, their DNA, that autism has been around for a long time and any evolutionary pressure would have been quite a long ways back in time, although any representative sample can be increased in numbers using simple breeding of the relevant DNA.

      It is one of the ways our larger brains have expanded on more primitive sub-structures within the brain itself.
      This gives rise to distortions and enhancements of particular brain functions at every level because the mutations only needed to be "viable" in terms of survivability and reproduction. There is no "direction" in DNA evolution.
      We haven't "progressed" but have only grown on what was there before, like a growth on a growth.

      If there was any "breeding" results throughout history, then we are quite likely to see some different characteristics using the same DNA – exactly like breeding dogs, but in a very haphazard way. Not many eugenics programs get done because experimenting on humans is considered to be against the Geneva Convention, so we do not see deliberately bred specialties among humans. We are all mongrels, mixed breeds, and nothing like a baseline beyond the most primitive DNA samples of primitive 'sapiens'.
      This is a clear difference between us and dogs. Dogs have, as a "baseline" the DNA of a wolf as a starting point for specific breeding. We don't have anything like that as modern humans as a designated starting point, so any "eugenics" programs are going to be at a disadvantage from the start on this point.

      Sorry for running on so long. But I felt compelled to share my opinion in the hopes it might make you check for missing details in your thinking about things.

      April 24, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  30. R Burns

    I've known this for a long time, and it's great to have it recognized! In addition to traits that would lead to a conclusion of Asperger's, I am post-polio, which also seems to have contributed to being "locked in". It's rare to find a physician who understands these things, so some amount of misguided pressure to conform to society's view of body shape, activity levels, etc has to be endured. On the other side, I'm a mathematical theoretician (twice published) and avid needlework designer. Who else but someone with these traits would spend a full decade just ensuring that the color spectrum for embroidery threads is correct (see Being this way is emotionally and physically painful, but I revel in it!

    April 24, 2012 at 1:24 am |
    • Face

      Your site needs decades of updating, it is like a time capsule. Seriously.. check this out. ( to create a page online instantly.

      April 24, 2012 at 2:15 am |
      • R Burns

        Yep, and I like it that way! I've spent too much of my time dancing to other people's tunes. Society has become so fast-paced, by the time you breathe in the air is stale. There is a place for time-honored concepts and activities, just as there is a place for antiques and retro clothing. You've heard the phrase "stop the world, I want to get off?" I used to have dreams about people in my life dragging me around like a rag doll with a rope around my waist. Maybe something to do with what this article is about. There is lots of room in the world for everyone, and by the way how long do you think it takes to complete one project on my website? Try an average of 2 years for most people, although I usually finish one in 3 to 6 months. You can stash me in a museum alongside them.

        April 24, 2012 at 3:46 am |
      • Bonita

        You are a great mother. Thank you for pontisg these videos. My own son is severely Autistic and thank God for my inlaws who support us 10000%. People judge us also, and on occasion have mentioned group homes etc We love Jory and think of him as a blessing and NOT a burden. I wish these people would just mind their business. James is a beautiful young man, I can't wait to see more.ChristinaVA:F [1.9.14_1148]please wait...VA:F [1.9.14_1148](from 0 votes)

        May 24, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  31. niceguy

    some people are born with poor gamma their brain which cause them to be less aware of what they are doing at present..and hooked into environment(being creative) ..they see world more beautiful..

    cause of their less awareness to themselves, people think they are stupid.

    April 24, 2012 at 12:51 am |
  32. BaldiWonKenobi

    In Chinese philosophy they say that people give names to things so they can limit them. You call something you dont understand by a name and it has limitations and boundaries. Thoughout our history we have labeled people who are different by many names, and doctors have "diagnosed" them. In the end though the people who had issues like ADD, aspergers and whatever else it is in style to call them are just people. Why label them? Take them for what they are, for what we all are for that matter, imperfect, diverse, human beings.

    April 24, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Dennn

      Unfortunately, political correctness and Western civilization cannot allow this. We have become a civilization that will noted for its ability to only truly accept mediocrity and sameness, weeding out differences as malignancies that need irradication or "specialness" that requires extreme accommodation.

      April 24, 2012 at 1:22 am |
    • joesix

      Sometimes people need a label. Before I was diagnosed with Asperger's during my senior year of high school, I felt alone, like the only socially impaired person on Earth. When I realized there was actually a name for my behaviors and an entire world out there with other people like me, I suddenly found myself with new friends and an idea that I just might be able to accomplish anything.

      April 24, 2012 at 1:42 am |
      • Waleed

        Some of them aren't targeting moms but spmily trying to use this as an excuse to get people fired up about environmentalist causes and increased regulation of chemicals that they think cause autism.

        September 12, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • david

      Most people with Autism need some type of support from an agency...Supported Living, Supported Employment, Independent Living Skills, etc. The only way to qualify for the funding and access to these programs is to have a diagnosis of Autism (or some other developmental disability). It doesn't have anything to do with not treating people like individuals or political correctness.

      April 24, 2012 at 3:23 am |
  33. Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

    Another manifestation (symptom) of the obsessive aspect of Asperger's is a lack of meta-cognition, i.e. the ability to criticially assess one's own ability to perform certain tasks. Individuals who suffer from obsessive Asperger's may have an intense interest in a subject and appear to possess some degree of knowledge in that field, when in reality their grasp of the subject is delusional. IOW, they only believe that they are experts in whatever filed-of-interest was forced upon them. Narcissism also appears to be a symptom, especially among those who feel compelled to punish others with their so-called "poetry".

    April 23, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
    • Al

      Can you cite a reference?

      Clearly, some people with Aspergers actually have skill.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:50 pm |
      • Robert

        Sounds like Newt Gingrich.

        April 24, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • R Burns

      That is so ridiculous!

      April 24, 2012 at 1:26 am |
    • james A.

      Narcissism? Some of us are pretty isolated, and sharing anything that might win your approval will often roll off my tongue faster than I can sensor it − almost always with disappointing results. If you are an attractive female, this scenario is exceptionally upsetting. Trust me dude, if you are disturbed by one 30 second encounter with me, imagine being stuck with me for life.

      April 24, 2012 at 1:45 am |
    • Doug

      You're not by any chance from the South are you? I sort of get what you're saying though, but what you're talking about is immaturity. It has nothing to do with the autism itself. Your arrogant assumption that we are delusional about what we've spent years researching and studying is pretty amusing though. I'm young to guess you know someone with Asperger's and they rubbed you the wrong way. Suck it up.

      April 24, 2012 at 3:05 am |
    • jennifer

      Temple Grandin? John Robinson? Meta-cognition? I disagree.

      April 24, 2012 at 9:29 am |
  34. musings

    I guess I balk at the idea that something so basic to someone's personality and being is considered (because most people are not like that) to be something the "Center for Disease Control and Prevention" should have anything to do with. Why? Because of the Orwellian overtones. Our government is not necessarily acting in our best interests most of the time. That they should get their hooks into our geniuses at an early age – not considering them gifted but instead diseased – is alarming and will if not lead to cultural suicide, certainly harm individuals who should never be treated to disease label.

    April 23, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Quid Malmborg in Plano TX

      Paranoid much?

      April 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
      • Shahsoor

        We adopted three boys with vouiars forms of autism and appreciate those who would blog on such an important subject. People more than ever need to be informed about autism and what life is like for those so affected since this debilitating condition seems to be on the rise.

        September 15, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  35. blam

    Real nerds watch Community.

    April 23, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • joesix

      Six seasons and a movie.

      April 24, 2012 at 1:43 am |