Back to Stories

Asperger's Syndrome, Part 4
by Michael McCroskery

Asperger Syndrome: Autism's Shadow

January 26, l998

The following is an excerpt from the Special Report Cover story, titled "Is Everybody Crazy?" by Sharon Begley. While Ms. Begley's main feature discusses the "Shadow Syndromes", NEWSWEEK added a sidebar by Thomas Hayden specifically on Asperger Syndrome. For further information on "Shadow Syndromes", I highly recommend the book of the same name by John J. Ratey, M.D. and Catherine Johnson, PhD.

Asperger Syndrome: Autism's Shadow

"Derek" describes himself as "a human simulation of an artificial-intelligence cognitive being." The 15-year-old is obviously bright, but he launches into pedantic monologues with little regard for his listeners. He's clumsy, speaks in a monotone and usually doesn't get jokes and figures of speech. He has trouble making friends; in fact he isn't quite sure what friendship is.

Just as mental illnesses have less severe "shadow" versions, so does autism, a developmental disorder. Derek has a mild form of autism: Asperger Syndrome. "AS" is marked by awkwardness, impaired social ability and a predilection for unappreciated soliloquies. Those traits can spell social disaster; they might also describe your last math professor. Researchers stress that AS isn't just a clinical term for eccentricity. Anyone can be shy, stubborn or unaware, but essential communication skills are still in place. That's not the case with AS, says Ami Klin of the Yale Child Study Center: "We're talking about inabilities, not just temperament."

The causes of AS are uncertain, but it's probably controlled by multiple genes. Almost half of the 450 children in Klin's autism program have one relative with similar characteristics. The severity of symptoms seems to depend on genetics and conditions during brain development. There's hope for prevention, but that might be a mixed blessing; there's more to life than socializing, and not all AS traits are negative. "We're in trouble if we get rid of the genes for autism," says Temple Grandin of Colorado State, who herself is autistic. "Somebody had to be pretty asocial to go off and make the first stone spearhead." Thomas Hayden