Turns out, the difference between pity and intrigue is encapsulated by a goofy Germanic word that sounds like a stinky cheese. This past fall, a 13-year-old Brooklyn boy named Francisco Hernandez Jr. disappeared for 11 days, continuously riding the New York City subways back and forth undetected. This disturbing story was leavened somehow by the revelation that the boy has Asperger's syndrome. What could have been another urban-chaos statistic instead became cocktail-party fodder: Isn't it interesting?
Although the idea that a medical condition might be in vogue seems in poor taste, Asperger's is a malady for our times, just as ADD was considered symptomatic of the age of MTV quick-cut editing a generation ago. Any description of Asperger's, a form of functioning autism marked by social withdrawal or outburst-prone ineptness and, often, mastery of some arcane knowledge, has to set off cringes of recognition in anyone who considers even a phone call to be about the sixth most preferable form of social communication. LOL, amirite? The term also represents the Platonic ideal of self-aggrandizing slagging and conversational shorthand—it's exotic-seeming and highbrow in its specificity, but not so obscure as to confuse. (Plus, the word rolls off the tongue: Ass-perger.)
And with the news that Asperger's, which officially became a medical diagnosis only in 1994, might be absorbed into the autism spectrum by 2012, Aspies—don't flinch, Asperger's sufferers call themselves that—fear they stand to lose their means of self-identification. So before you rip into your girlfriend's affectless, sci-fi-geek coworker by throwing around the new A-word and feel pride for being an avid reader of the New York Times, remember a few things: (a) It is not a scarlet letter, (b) it may well be accurate, and (c) perhaps you should be jealous.
At least since Robert Benchley, an Algonquin Round Table mainstay, first used moron as a dig in a Vanity Fair essay (his demeaning phrase was "high-class moron," to be precise), the smart set has co-opted terms for psychological conditions in the name of building a better put-down. In wittier circles, getting a laugh at someone else's expense has become increasingly dependent on this sort of idiomatic specificity—it's not enough to make someone look dumb; we need to make ourselves sound smart in the process.
As terms that were once used clinically—idiot, cretin, spastic, and imbecile all used to have official diagnostic definitions—have been absorbed into the casual-insult vernacular, we've had to dig ever deeper to find one that can leave a mark. If Don Rickles were getting started today, he wouldn't be able to get onstage without a copy of the New England Journal of Medicine tucked under his arm.
"People are constantly seeking new sources of vocabulary, especially when it comes to ridiculing the awkward," says Ben Zimmer, a linguist and the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, a lexicology website. "We think of psychiatric terms as needing to be precise, but they fall in and out of fashion."
The reality of Asperger's syndrome can be summed up simply: "It's the inability to distinguish the conversation you're having with somebody from the one going on in your head," says John Elder Robison, who wrote the 2007 memoir Look Me in the Eye: My Life With Asperger's. Sound familiar?
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?
According to Robison, technological advancements in the next few years might more clearly distinguish neurological conditions from social disorders or plain old jerkiness . . . just in time for Asperger's to no longer be recognized as a syndrome unto itself. Perhaps by then the snarky set who've made the disorder a cocktail-party dig will have a handy new sciencey-sounding epithet. Of course, if you want to identify the real unfriendly social misfits, you already can: They're the smartasses laughing about guys with Asperger's at a cocktail party near you.