Nick is building a universe on his computer. He’s already mapped out his first planet: an anvil-shaped world called Denthaim that is home to gnomes and gods, along with a three-gendered race known as man. As he tells me about his universe, Nick looks up at the ceiling, humming fragments of a melody over and over. “I’m thinking of making magic a form of quantum physics, but I haven’t decided yet, actually,” he explains. The music of his speech is pitched high, alternately poetic and pedantic – as if the soul of an Oxford don has been awkwardly reincarnated in the body of a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy from Silicon Valley. Nick is 11 years old.
Nick’s father is a software engineer, and his mother is a computer programmer. They’ve known that Nick was an unusual child for a long time. He’s infatuated with fantasy novels, but he has a hard time reading people. Clearly bright and imaginative, he has no friends his own age. His inability to pick up on hidden agendas makes him easy prey to certain cruelties, as when some kids paid him a few dollars to wear a ridiculous outfit to school.
One therapist suggested that Nick was suffering from an anxiety disorder. Another said he had a speech impediment. Then his mother read a book called Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. In it, psychologist Tony Attwood describes children who lack basic social and motor skills, seem unable to decode body language and sense the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, and frequently launch into monologs about narrowly defined – and often highly technical – interests. Even when very young, these children become obsessed with order, arranging their toys in a regimented fashion on the floor and flying into tantrums when their routines are disturbed. As teenagers, they’re prone to getting into trouble with teachers and other figures of authority, partly because the subtle cues that define societal hierarchies are invisible to them.
“I thought, ‘That’s Nick,'” his mother recalls.
Asperger’s syndrome is one of the disorders on the autistic spectrum – a milder form of the condition that afflicted Raymond Babbitt, the character played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. In the taxonomy of autism, those with Asperger’s syndrome have average – or even very high – IQs, while 70 percent of those with other autistic disorders suffer from mild to severe mental retardation. One of the estimated 450,000 people in the US living with autism, Nick is more fortunate than most. He can read, write, and speak. He’ll be able to live and work on his own. Once he gets out of junior high hell, it’s not hard to imagine Nick creating a niche for himself in all his exuberant strangeness. At the less fortunate end of the spectrum are what diagnosticians call “profoundly affected” children. If not forcibly engaged, these children spend their waking hours in trancelike states, staring at lights, rocking, making high-pitched squeaks, and flapping their hands, repetitively stimulating (“stimming”) their miswired nervous systems.
In one of the uncanny synchronicities of science, autism was first recognized on two continents nearly simultaneously. In 1943, a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner published a monograph outlining a curious set of behaviors he noticed in 11 children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. A year later, a pediatrician in Vienna named Hans Asperger, who had never seen Kanner’s work, published a paper describing four children who shared many of the same traits. Both Kanner and Asperger gave the condition the same name: autism – from the Greek word for self, autòs – because the children in their care seemed to withdraw into iron-walled universes of their own.
Kanner went on to launch the field of child psychiatry in the US, while Asperger’s clinic was destroyed by a shower of Allied bombs. Over the next 40 years, Kanner became widely known as the author of the canonical textbook in his field, in which he classified autism as a subset of childhood schizophrenia. Asperger was virtually ignored outside of Europe and died in 1980. The term Asperger syndrome wasn’t coined until a year later, by UK psychologist Lorna Wing, and Asperger’s original paper wasn’t even translated into English until 1991. Wing built upon Asperger’s intuition that even certain gifted children might also be autistic. She described the disorder as a continuum that “ranges from the most profoundly physically and mentally retarded person … to the ablest, highly intelligent person with the social impairment in its subtlest form as his only disability. It overlaps with learning disabilities and shades into eccentric normality.”
Asperger’s notion of a continuum that embraces both smart, geeky kids like Nick and those with so-called classic or profound autism has been accepted by the medical establishment only in the last decade. Like most distinctions in the world of childhood developmental disorders, the line between classic autism and Asperger’s syndrome is hazy, shifting with the state of diagnostic opinion. Autism was added to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, but Asperger’s syndrome wasn’t included as a separate disorder until the fourth edition in 1994. The taxonomy is further complicated by the fact that few if any people who have Asperger’s syndrome will exhibit all of the behaviors listed in the DSM-IV. (The syn in syndrome derives from the same root as the syn in synchronicity – the word means that certain symptoms tend to cluster together, but all need not be present to make the diagnosis.) Though Asperger’s syndrome is less disabling than “low-functioning” forms of autism, kids who have it suffer difficulties in the same areas as classically autistic children do social interactions, motor skills, sensory processing, and a tendency toward repetitive behavior.
In the last 20 years, significant advances have been made in developing methods of behavioral training that help autistic children find ways to communicate. These techniques, however, require prodigious amounts of persistence, time, money, and love. Though more than half a century has passed since Kanner and Asperger first gave a name to autism, there is still no known cause, no miracle drug, and no cure.
And now, something dark and unsettling is happening in Silicon Valley.
In the past decade, there has been a significant surge in the number of kids diagnosed with autism throughout California. In August 1993, there were 4,911 cases of so-called level-one autism logged in the state’s Department of Developmental Services client-management system. This figure doesn’t include kids with Asperger’s syndrome, like Nick, but only those who have received a diagnosis of classic autism. In the mid-’90s, this caseload started spiraling up. In 1999, the number of clients was more than double what it had been six years earlier. Then the curve started spiking. By July 2001, there were 15,441 clients in the DDS database. Now there are more than seven new cases of level-one autism – 85 percent of them children – entering the system every day.