Harriet and her button collection. Photo by Jamie-James Medina
"If it weren't for us Aspies, all you NTs would still be in caves." Aspies are people with Asperger's Syndrome, a mental disorder that allows its victims to concentrate on one thing, exclusively, forever and ever, hence important technological inventions like the phone and the car. NTs, on the other hand, are "Neuro-typicals," a.k.a. people like you and me that don't become obsessed with something, hence important inventions like "fun" and "hanging out." When Ted, the Aspie speaking above, pointed out the need for nerds, we felt compelled to reply, "True, but if it wasn't for dung beetles, Africa would be covered in shit. That doesn't mean anyone wants to be a dung beetle." Of course, Ted was too obsessed with his argument and wasn't about to stop. "The conventional motivators of the Neuro-typical world are power, wealth, and prestige," he continued, "but there's an additional motivator for Aspies, or at least for me, and that's to answer some nagging question in my head which threatens to overwhelm absolutely everything else unless I do something about it."
Every decade or so the world of psychology, and in turn the American public, adopts a new mental disorder that establishes itself as the hip diagnosis. In the 1980s we had Multiple Personality Disorder, with thousands of victims of childhood abuse trying to heal their inner child. In the 90s we had Attention Deficit Disorder, resulting in Ritalin becoming the single most prescribed medication for American children under the age of twelve. Now a new decade is upon us, and a new diagnosis is rearing its kooky head. Despite the fact that Asperger's Syndrome (AS) was first discovered around the turn of the century, and has been available as a diagnostic option for close to 50 years, 95 percent of the research conducted on AS has been done in the last ten years—in which time there has also been a 400 percent increase in formal AS diagnoses. Now, this could be as bullshit as the other massive mental-health "trends," but for the sake of this article, let's pretend the statistics are accurate this time and get super-into this new wave of AS that's taking over the country.
All I know is, people who suffer from Asperger's are taking one for the team, big time. In fact, every technological breakthrough you can think of was made by someone who wasn't quite "NT." When you have Asperger's, there's no going out for a quick beer or browsing at the video store. There is, however, categorically obsessing over archaic genres of music, memorizing the colors and years of every train on the Union Pacific Line, or (if you're lucky) frantically trying to conquer electronics and medicine for the rest of your life. Asperger's is the Elite Blue Ribbon Big Guy of Obsessive Disorders. As the DSM-IV (the Holy Qu'ran of mental disorders) states, folks with AS demonstrate an "encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal in either intensity or focus." For example, there's the young man with AS who became obsessed with Tom Cruise films. But he didn't just quote lines from Top Gun. His style was more about neverending lectures on the exact number of costume changes in Cocktail or cursewords in Days of Thunder. Young children with AS may be drawn to Pokémon and dinosaurs, but some choose obsessions as random as washing machines (you should hear these guys lecture about all the different washing-machine doors and who just got laid off from Maytag) and game shows (imagine a tiny version of the King of Comedy basement but with a new set every day). Adults, on the other hand, are more often attracted to nerd staples like science fiction and Japanese animation. Of course, these obsessions seem like passing interests when compared to the AS people who become enthralled with inanimate objects, like the man who spent countless hours researching the history and development of ziplock bags or Harriet, the girl pictured on the previous page. She is obsessed with buttons. "I spend a lot of time arranging them all in different groups and patterns," she explains. "I still haven't found the perfect pattern to make them all fit together, but I think about it constantly. If I had every single button in the world then the pattern would be easier to make but since there are new buttons coming in all the time and being invented all over the world, it constantly changes in my mind." Imagine what this girl could do for humanity if she eventually gets obsessed with cancer or hangovers.
What we should be doing is harnessing the powers and dedication of people with Asperger's to make the world a utopian garden where peace and health rule. These people could be the worker bees of a bright new future and America would be the leaders. Thanks to nerd inbreeding, California's Silicon Valley now boasts the most intense Asperger's victims there are. If we found a way to use them the way dams get power from water, you could forget about terrorists, AIDS, and any question you ever had about Apatosaurus or the 26th president. Once an Aspie gets locked into a pattern, rampaging demons couldn't drag him away. Even the littlest routine cannot be sacrificed. As our cantankerous pal Ted says, "It doesn't matter how late I'm running, I literally cannot go out the door without breakfast (cereal and orange juice) and without reading the funnies. Gotta read the funnies. The house could be on fire and I'd still get it done."
As it stands now, people with AS risk alienating themselves from the rest of the world because of their obsessions. A nine-year-old boy who doesn't want to talk about anything besides Catherine the Great isn't likely to be first picked for dodgeball. And a college-aged woman who has a self-made chart noting the key differences between gnomes and elves is not going to be a big hit at a kegger (although she should be).
Annie, a woman in her mid-20s with AS, found out the hard way that Neuro-typicals can't hang. For a while, her AS obsession was with Britpop and Big Beat music. "I even started going out to club nights for a while," she recalls, "and got together with a young man who was very impressed with my knowledge of the bands, venues, and music. But he soon realized that it was random facts, obsessively pulled from magazines like NME, not genuine passion or understanding. That was the end of that."
Asperger's is not a choice, either. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of these obsessions is that individuals with AS are unable to understand that other people do not necessarily give a flying fuck about their "special interests." Inherent in AS is the inability to read social cues or to interpret nonverbal communication. For example, if some Aspie is telling you about a game show like Match Game '74, and you yawn and slowly roll your eyes, he still will not get the clue that you are about to die of boredom. He doesn't care what you think. You weren't on Match Game in 1974.
Few people know just how biologically different those with AS are from Neuro-typicals. Psychiatric research generally looks at three factors as potential causes for mental disorders: chemical imbalances, structural abnormalities within the brain, and irregular genetic patterns. In recent studies, significant differences have been found between AS and non-AS subjects in all three of these areas. This means that Aspies are hardwired to be the human race's official problem solvers, question answerers, and go-to guys. As one anonymous Aspie told us, "Consider a group of people for whom the conventional social constraints don't apply, and for whom thinking seems to follow some yet-unknown associational paths in the brain. It would seem that these are the very building blocks of invention and innovation, no?"
Our pal Ted is a perfect example. His obsessions are aviation, Viking and Russian history, septic tanks (he gave a talk regarding the regulation of on-site wastewater treatment systems to an organization of lake management districts), and also Saint Paul and the relationship between modern Christianity and Mithraism. What's your hobby? Collecting fucking baseball cards? That's lightweight shit, bitch. Or consider Glen, an Aspie who is obsessed with fitness. "It's like exercise bulimia really," he says. "I'm working out two to three times a day, every day. Saturday is an hour of kickboxing, an hour of enduroflex, then a lunch break, and then an hour of weight lifting. I also run a fitness board—the largest on Yahoo—of 4,000 members." Glen does more for the world of fitness than a thousand NTs could do in a lifetime. He didn't exactly have a raging party during that time, but is that our problem?
Behavior like Glen's exhibits precisely the kind of singlemindedness and dedication that is lacking in Neuro-typicals. How can anyone deny that it's time to start a foundation that fosters the Aspie way (like the place in X-Men where all the mutants go to college)? With gentle diverting and coaching, we can get one team of Aspies obsessed with ending world hunger and another one cracking on a cure for hemorrhoids.
Aspies, if you let them, can save your ass.