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.
But anxiety alone (generalized anxiety disorder: 300.02) doesn’t fully explain it. There’s something admiring, too, in the cultural uses of Asperger’s, which makes it different from the psych put-downs du jour of previous eras. The popular but mostly false image of Rain Man–like asocial geniuses (whether on the sitcoms Big Bang Theory and Community, say, or in best-selling books like Jodi Picoult’s novel House Rules and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short) has helped create a mystique around high-functioning autism, and the idea that Asperger’s offers selective advantages has midwifed a generation of self-outers: See, for example, Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic Tim Page’s Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s, or contestant Heather Kuzmich’s appearances on America’s Next Top Model.
And so we find ourselves in a weird place. A psychiatric diagnosis first observed in four boys more than half a century ago has become common slang, a conceptual gadget for processing the modern world. Weirder still: At the same time it soothes the insecurities of those who would weaponize it as insult, it flatters the vanity of those who’d appropriate it as status credential.
In 1995, when Ben Nugent was 17 years old, his mother told him she thought he had Asperger’s. This was particularly distressing to him, both because his mother was qualified to know—she was a psychologist specializing in the disorder—and because he was an aspiring novelist. As he puts it: “If what I had proposed to do with my life was to plumb the inner depths of other people, it could be a big problem.” He never actually believed he had Asperger’s, but at the time, it hadn’t yet become a pop-culture phenomenon, and when his mother asked him to appear in an educational video she was making about the disorder, he agreed. By the time he watched the film for the first time, he was 22, lived in New York, worked as an arts reporter at Time, and had a new set of friends, and it was clear to him that he was neurologically typical. His girlfriend laughed as they watched the video together and he kept objecting to his inclusion. “When I saw this video and saw what the other people in it were like,” Nugent says, “I was like, Oh my God.”