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Autism Spectrum: Are You On It?

The yen to see the world in SpectrumVision is not just a case of glib metaphor abuse. Some studies of twins suggest that autism traits are distributed throughout the population. And it’s now understood that there’s an autism phenotype, where the same genetics can manifest in mild forms in parents and as full-blown autism in their children.

No one has been so responsible for the spread of this idea as Baron-Cohen, who has conducted a number of studies showing concentrations of autism among techies. In 1997, he published one asserting that autistic children were twice as likely as non-autistic children to have fathers or grandfathers who were engineers; he found a higher rate of autistic traits among math students at Cambridge than among those in other disciplines; and he has argued that in Silicon Valley, geeks intermarry and are more likely to produce autistic offspring.

As it turns out, a striking number of criminal defendants diagnosed with Asperger’s are computer hackers. Misha Glenny, author of a book about cybercrime, is convinced that hackers are often people on the spectrum who end up outside the law by default—their lack of social skills combined with a surplus of computer know-how. “The Internet is what has made them—it gave them a place to be criminals,” he has said. Earlier this month, the British home secretary ruled against the extradition to the U.S. of Gary McKinnon, a hacker who in 2002 was arrested for breaking into dozens of American government computers in what a U.S. attorney called “the biggest hack of military computers ever.” McKinnon, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, has said that he was just trying to unearth proof that the government was covering up UFO secrets, including anti-gravity technology acquired from alien landings. He has become a cause célèbre, inspiring free gary T-shirts and a benefit song featuring Chrissie Hynde, Bob Geldof, and David Gilmour. McKinnon’s diagnosis dates only to 2008, after a television viewer with Asperger’s saw a news report about the case and contacted McKinnon’s lawyer, who then had McKinnon evaluated by Baron-Cohen.

Baron-Cohen has come in for criticism by scholars and some autism advocates who view his methods as unrigorous. Other researchers have pointed out that so-called autism clusters tend to be in areas with more highly educated people—who tend to marry older (a factor that correlates with higher autism rates) and who have the money to have their kids tested. “I don’t think Baron-Cohen understands the rudiments of genetics,” says Jonathan Mitchell, a high-functioning autistic who writes the Autism’s Gadfly blog. But Baron-Cohen’s work gets all the media play. In 2001, Wired published an article, “The Geek Syndrome,” popularizing the autistic-nerd meme. It was accompanied by Baron-­Cohen’s 50-question self-diagnostic questionnaire, and afterward, says Bryna Siegel, whose clinic is a short drive from Silicon Valley, “we had an incredible number of phone calls. I told my assistant, ‘If someone has their secretary call, don’t call back. If they have a secretary, they don’t have Asperger’s.’ ”

The self-diagnosis boom has been accompanied by self-diagnoses that can be bracing in their unpersuasiveness. Craigs­list’s Newmark has acknowledged that “psychologist friends” have dismissed his self-diagnosis as “hypochondria.” Bram Cohen, the founder of BitTorrent, has revealed that his self-professed Asperger’s, about which he has spoken publicly at great length, was suggested by his girlfriend and never confirmed by a professional. Nobel Prize–winning economist Vernon Smith, another self-diagnoser, has cited as a key symptom the “tremendous amount of strain” he finds in “a social situation that lasts a couple of hours.”

Aspies, self-diagnosed and otherwise, speak of the relief that diagnosis brings. For someone who may have gone decades feeling socially alienated, and blaming himself for it, knowledge of the condition can offer a key to the puzzle of his personality and the interpersonal challenges he’s experienced. It was “a biblical weight off,” and an explanation “for all those social banana peels along the way,” says Michael John Carley, who was diagnosed at 36, after his 4-year-old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s.

Carley has an unusual background for someone with a disorder characterized by difficulty in social interaction; a graduate of Columbia, he previously worked as a diplomat in Bosnia and Iraq. He is now a leading Asperger’s advocate, one of a vocal group who promote the idea of “neurodiversity” and consider non-autistic people to be “neurotypicals,” or “NTs,” with different but not superior cognitive styles.

The Aspie-pride movement—an extreme fringe of which goes so far as to argue for “autistic supremacy”—takes its intellectual framework partly from studies that have posited that autism is an evolutionary adaptation, enabling survival strategies including solitary foraging, and that a male in the ancestral environment might have benefited from being more systematic and less empathic than others. Penny Spikins, an archaeologist at the University of York, recently published a paper suggesting that autistics were responsible for nothing less than the Stone Age tool revolution. Others, such as Juan Enriquez, a “futurist” at Harvard Business School, have argued that autism isn’t so much a vestige of the past as a glimpse of what’s to come: “the next evolutionary step” in an increasingly data-choked world.