Are You On It? If so, you’re in good company. From Asperger’s to “Asperger’s,” how the spectrum became quite so all-inclusive.
November 9, 2012
Is every man in America somewhere on it?” Nora Ephron wondered about the autism spectrum in an e-mail to a friend a few months before her death. “Is every producer on it? Is every 8-year-old boy who is obsessed with statistics on it? Sometimes, when we say someone is on the spectrum, do we just mean he’s a prick? Or a pathological narcissist? I notice that at least three times a week I am told (or I tell someone) that some man or other is on the spectrum.”
Ephron was hardly alone. In August, after a string of campaign-trail bloopers by Mitt Romney (e.g., at a New Hampshire parade, he described his lemonade as “lemon … wet … good”), noted diagnostician David Shuster, a television personality at Current TV, floated the idea that Romney might be on the spectrum. Shuster cited “an uncle who specializes in the field of Asperger’s”—a mild variant of autism—who had “suggested that perhaps Mitt Romney has some sort of form of Asperger’s because he’s so socially inept in terms of being able to connect with people. What he thinks is funny is really sort of not so funny. I sort of wonder if there’s some sort of tic or something that he has that’s related to that.”
Meanwhile, out on the Great Plains, one Dennis Stillings, writing in the Bismarck-based Dakota Beacon about Barack Obama, has adduced such telltale evidence as his “legendary clumsiness … He has actually bowled a 37,” “verbal glitches—possibly the reason for the ever-present teleprompters,” and “infamous inability to relate” to arrive at a boldly contrarian thesis: “Obama may well not be narcissistic at all, but simply manifesting a typical feature of autism.” Stillings then passes along the opinion of a friend of a friend “who actually works with autistic people” that the president of the United States “likely” has Asperger’s, and speculates that this “may or may not be of significance” to the Obama administration’s considerable funding of autism research.
The diagnosis is everywhere: Facebook’s former head of engineering has stated that Mark Zuckerberg has “a touch of the Asperger’s.” Time suggested that the intensely awkward Bill Gates is autistic; a biographer of Warren Buffett wrote that the Oracle of Omaha, with his prodigious memory and “fascination with numbers,” has “a vaguely autistic aura.” OnCelebrity Rehab, Dr. Drew Pinsky deemed Dennis Rodman (selectively hyperfocused, socially obtuse) a candidate for an Asperger’s diagnosis, and the UCLA specialist brought in to make it official “seemed to concur,” Pinsky told viewers. On the Asperger’s community site Wrong Planet, threads like “Real life celebrities who have or probably have Asperger’s” include Jim Carrey, Adolf Hitler, Daryl Hannah, Slash, Billy Joel, J. K. Rowling, and Adam Carolla, who makes the cut because “I’ve heard guests on his podcast remark on his lack of eye contact.” “Kanye Probably Has Asperger’s,” BuzzFeed recently declared.
Still others are seeing it in themselves. David Byrne: “I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.” Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, noting his poor eye contact and limited social competency, blogged that Asperger’s symptoms “feel uncomfortably familiar.” Dan Harmon, the volatile creator of NBC’s Community, told an interviewer last year that he had boned up on Asperger’s symptoms when researching the character Abed: “The more I looked them up, the more familiar they seemed.” Dan Aykroyd told NPR’s Terry Gross that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a child (a puzzling claim given that the diagnosis didn’t exist prior to 1981, when Aykroyd turned 29); Aykroyd insisted he was being serious, and as evidence of his continuing symptoms he noted his “fascination with law enforcement and the police.”
What is happening? What cultural through-line has emerged that would join such surreal-life bedfellows as a pop-piano-playing crooner, a flamboyant professional basketball player, a reclusive children’s-book author, a twentysomething Internet gazillionaire, and a genocidal madman together in diagnostic brotherhood? How have we reached a point where partisans of left and right can regard the opposing candidates for the highest office in the land and see … an arcane brain disorder? “It’s an epidemic,” Ephron wrote in her e-mail. “Or else a wildly over-diagnosed thing that there used to be other words for.”
Every generation has its defining psychiatric malady, confidently diagnosed from afar by armchair non-psychiatrists. In the fifties, all those gray-suited organization men were married to “frigid” women. Until a few years ago, the country of self-obsessed boomers and reality-TV fame-seekers and vain politicians and bubble-riding Ponzi schemers made narcissistic personality disorder—diagnosis code 301.81 in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition—the craziness of the moment. And who among us has not proudly copped to our own “OCD” or “ADD,” deemed a mercurial sibling “seriously bipolar,” written off an erratic ex as “obviously borderline,” or nodded as a laid-off friend pronounced his former boss a “textbook sociopath”? Lately, a new kind of head case stalks the land—staring past us, blurting gaucheries, droning on about the technical minutiae of his boring hobby. And we are ready with our DSM codes: 299.00 (autistic disorder) and 299.80 (Asperger’s disorder).
The pros have led the way. In the nineties, clinicians began reconceptualizing autism from a singular disorder to a cluster of related conditions on a spectrum of severity; as the criteria broadened to encompass less acutely impaired people—such as the more verbal group diagnosed with Asperger’s—prevalence rose dramatically. Before 1980, one in 2,000 children was thought to be autistic. By 2007, the Centers for Disease Control were reporting that one in 152 American children had an autism-spectrum disorder. Two years later, the CDC updated the ratio to one in 110. This past March, the CDC revised the number upward again, to one in 88 (one in 54, if you just count boys, who are five times as likely to have one as girls). A South Korean study from last year put the number even higher, at one in 38. And in New Jersey, according to the latest numbers, an improbable one in 29 boys is on the spectrum.
Despite much debate about the causes of the so-called autism epidemic, the consensus among experts is that the increase is mostly due not to a rise in incidence but to greater awareness, recognition, and testing, and to the wider parameters of who qualifies for a place on the spectrum (New Jersey, for instance, has some of the most robust autism services in the country). Such elasticity is nowhere so relevant as at the fuzzy, ever-shifting threshold where clinical disorder shades into everyday eccentricity. The upper end of the spectrum is the liminal zone where Aspies, as people with Asperger’s call themselves, reside.
But this is not a story about Asperger’s, autism, or the spectrum—those very real afflictions that can bring untold hardship to the people who suffer from them and to their families. It is, instead, a story about “Asperger’s,” “autism,” and “the spectrum”—our one-stop-shopping shorthand for the jerky husband, the socially inept plutocrat, the tactless boss, the child prodigy with no friends, the remorseless criminal. It’s about the words we deploy to describe some murky hybrid of egghead and aloof.
Like the actual clinical disorder, the cultural epidemic in scare quotes may have less to do with changes in the world than with changes in those seeing it. To some degree, the spectrum is our way of making sense of an upended social topography, a buckled landscape where nerd titans hold the high ground once occupied by square-jawed captains of industry, a befuddling digital world overrun with trolls and avatars and social-media “rock stars” who are nothing like actual rock stars. It is, as the amateur presidential shrinks would have it, a handy phrase for the distant, cerebral men with the ambition and self-possession necessary to mount a serious run for the White House. When quants and engineers are ascendant, when algorithms trump the liberal arts, when Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber tweet about the death of Steve Jobs, when the hyperspecialist has displaced the generalist and everyone is Matrix-ed into the Internet, it’s an Other-deriding tool to soothe our cultural anxiety about the ongoing power shift from humanists to technologists. As the coders inherit the Earth, saying someone’s on the spectrum is how English majors make themselves feel better…