The Internet can be a social paradise for high-functioning autistic people
and people with Asperger's syndrome. Here, the nonverbal niceties of social
interaction that they find so perplexing don't apply. People who might strike
others as gauche in person often fit in perfectly well on Internet message
A Web link to an autism screening test posted
recently on Digg.com, a tech news site, generated hundreds of comments from
users. Many self-described computer geeks took the online test, for which a
score of 16 is considered average, and a score of 32 or higher suggests
When my daughter Mary was diagnosed with autism in 1995,” says actor Gary
Cole, “all I had to go on was Rain Man.” Today, an
estimated one in 150 American children under age 8 are diagnosed with autism or
related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome -- all with symptoms such as an
inability to relate to others, the insistence on rigid routines, and engaging
in repetitive behaviors. “It seems you can ask any friend, any relative,” says
Cole, “and they’ll be able to tell you about someone...
"Twenty. Not autistic, just plain geek," one user commented.
"Thirty-eight, definitely 38. Time for Judge Wapner," wrote another,
a reference to a TV show watched obsessively by an autistic character in the
movie The Rain Man.
Of course, you can't diagnose anything by taking a quiz on the Internet.
"It is only a screening instrument. It is not a substitute for a full
diagnostic assessment," says the test's author, Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, a
psychology professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at the
University of Cambridge, England.
"In addition, the [test] tells you if you have lots of traits but it
does not tell you if these traits are causing problems. A diagnosis is only
given if the person is suffering in some way," he tells WebMD.
But if nothing else, the lively discussion thread on Digg.com, and similar
activity at other online techie hangouts like Slashdot, illustrates that many
of them are inclined to identify with autism.
"It's been said that people with autism invented the Internet," Eric
Hollander, MD, director of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence
at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "By email you don't
have to read people's nonverbal social cues. You don't have to look at body
language or facial expressions. It's just the verbal content of
Not only does the Internet downplay autistic social deficits, but the
language of computers also allows some people with autism to give full
expression to their exceptional abilities.
Autism is a developmental brain
disorder that includes many different symptoms, with a broad range of severity.
People with the disorder are said to fall somewhere along the "autism
spectrum." Some are severely disabled, but others may only exhibit mild
symptoms. IQ levels can also vary significantly.
Those with normal and above-average intelligence are said to have
high-functioning autism. Asperger's syndrome is closely related. Identified for
the first time in 1944 by Viennese psychologist Hans Asperger, it wasn't
officially classified as a unique disorder until 1994. It shares all the
features of high-functioning autism except that people with Asperger's don't
have early delays in developing language.
Baron-Cohen studies the relationship between technical smarts and autistic
tendencies, and he has developed a new theory about it.