Barely known a decade ago, Aspies are everywhere now: Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, was narrated by a precocious kid with Asperger's-like symptoms. The 2006 Josh Hartnett Aspies-in-love flick Mozart and the Whale was followed by last summer's Adam, featuring Hugh Dancy as an Aspie whose childlike wonder wins over Rose Byrne. Meanwhile, a blog called Aspies on TV diagnoses Asperger's-esque behavior in television and film characters like Inspector Clouseau, Dexter, Napoleon Dynamite, Dwight Schrute, and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Real-life big brains such as Einstein, Darwin, Van Gogh, and Bill Gates, some Asperger's researchers and community sites tell us, are likely members of the tribe.
"Another word for Asperger's is geek or nerd," says Temple Grandin, a doctor of animal science and an Asperger's expert whose struggles with autism were documented in Oliver Sacks' book An Anthropologist on Mars—and was played by Claire Danes in the HBO biopic Temple Grandin. "One of the core deficits is that we're not interested in chitchat for the sake of chitchat. So an Asperger's kid is going to get his social life through shared interests like science fiction or computers. How do you medically diagnose that?"
We don't—not clinically. Instead, we do it socially, oh-so-cleverly slinging the term at anyone who strikes us as an awkward, out-there loser. And maybe we occasionally self-deprecatingly own up to "having an Asperger's moment," knowing people will forgive us our trespasses. Like ADD and chronic fatigue syndrome before it, Asperger's is becoming a get-out-of-jail-free card for id-driven impulses. Craig Nicholls, the frontman of the Vines, became an indie-rock darling during the group's early-millennium heyday but then quickly alienated fans and bandmates alike by acting like an aloof, obsessive, violent lunatic. After a run-in with the law, Nicholls was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and was summarily cleared of assault charges—he may have been a dick, but he had a doctor's note. And just like that, Asperger's was more than a term to describe eccentric, boorish behavior—it was also a Twinkie defense for it.
In online forums like Aspies for Freedom, the term Asperger's has become more badge of honor than scarlet letter. "It's self-identification," says Ben Zimmer. "It might be seen as pejorative, but a lot of people are claiming the term as their own." And one reason so many people want to identify with the syndrome is that it correlates with high intelligence and imagination. "If it weren't for Asperger's, you wouldn't have phones, you wouldn't have electricity," Grandin notes, perhaps (or perhaps not) hyperbolically. Snicker about someone's having Asperger's and you're effectively accusing them of being smart and creative—is them really fightin' words?