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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.

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Illustration by Gluekit.  

“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.” On Celebrity 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).


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