Are You on It?

How did autism and Asperger’s become so widely diagnosed, and how did “Asperger’s-y” become cultural shorthand for everyone from a moody husband to an aloof Silicon Valley titan to both presidential candidates? A journey across the spectrum.

  1. “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...

Originally published in New York, November 2012