People who suffer from it, as Mary and Jerry do, are usually born with it, and usually grow up unhappy, wary of others, often shutting out even their own parents.
Some autistic people are profoundly retarded; and some are brilliant, like the two people that Correspondent Lesley Stahl first introduced you to in 1996, and then again eight years later.
Jerry Newport always knew there was something wrong with him. But as he was growing up, he didn't know what it was.
"The one thing I've never had is natural grace. I guess that's the part of me that I've always felt was missing, that everybody around me seemed to have, was this natural sense of when to talk and how," says Jerry. "What to say and how to say it, and do all those other unspoken things."
Jerry was always out of step with the rest of the parade. He did well in school at the University of Michigan, but then he spent the next 20 years drifting from job to job. He was a taxi driver, a messenger, a clerk, busboy and deliveryman. He failed at work, and he failed at relationships. He even had trouble, and still does, making eye contact.
"I was just Jerry," he says. "I was just odd, eccentric … just almost normal."
But he got so depressed that he tried to kill himself twice. Without friends, he developed a deep bond with animals. He let his pet cockatiels fly loose in his apartment. And then, just when he felt he would never find his way, he went to the movies. He saw "Rain Man," which starred Dustin Hoffman as Raymond Babbitt, an autistic man who spent his whole life in an institution.
Babbitt had some unusual skills, which Jerry discovered he had, too. When a man in the movie asked Babbitt how much 4,343 times 1,234 was, Jerry knew the answer.
"The answer was 5,359,262," says Jerry. "I said it before he [Babbitt] said it. People in front of me in the theater just looked around. And then, I realized, 'Uh-oh.'"
As Jerry watched Hoffman play Babbitt, he said, "That's me." Babbitt was 40 when he first realized he was autistic. So Jerry set out to learn everything he could about autism, and found his way to the department of psychiatry at UCLA. There, he was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which most experts say is a distinctive form of autism.
Asperger individuals are often highly intelligent, with unusual skills. But like other autistic people, they suffer from severe sensitivity to light, sounds, smell and touch.
Once Jerry knew what he had, he went looking for others like him. He organized a support group of grownups with autism, and they meet on a regular basis.
Mary Meinel is a savant, considered a genius in some ways. Yet as a child, she was labeled difficult, even retarded. One teacher even thought she might be deaf. But Mary was hearing sounds that other humans couldn't hear. She cried if the piano was out of tune. She played musical instruments with virtually no lessons. She writes music but goes about it like no one you've ever heard of.
She can write music from the last page and do it backwards. She says it's because the music is already written in her brain. In fact, when she was with Stahl, she was writing four parts for a string quartet.
Like Jerry, Mary has Asperger's Syndrome. After years of turmoil, including a nervous breakdown and thoughts of suicide, she found her way to Jerry's support group.
"And then I found out that he had cockatiels, and he kept them loose in his house," says Mary. "And I'm going, 'Hey, me, too.'"
These two lost souls had found each other, and seven months after they met, Jerry asked Mary to marry him. They couldn't believe their good fortune. They live in an average house in an average neighborhood. And they're just an average couple – almost, but not quite.
The Newport household includes one rabbit, three iguanas, and 11 birds.
Every new marriage takes adjustment, but theirs took more than most.
"Jerry will walk in the door, and I'll go, 'Hi, honey. How are you?' Hug. He goes, 'No! [Don't touch me],' says Mary. "It's like being electrocuted."
"The kinds of touches that intimidate me are the ones that are a complete surprise," says Jerry. "But it's when you want to have sex, and that's what both of us want to do, that's a different story, a good story."
They both say they have saved each other.
"She's the kite and I'm the anchor. I didn't know how to hope, and all she could do was hope," says Jerry. "It's incredible. I mean, it's a miracle. I wake up and I feel like I've won the lottery and I didn't even buy a ticket."
But their relationship has taken some twists and turns, as Stahl discovered when she visited Jerry and Mary Newport eight years later.
Their divorce in June 1999 came as a shock for everyone who knew them.
"For me, it was a very, very low point in my life," says Jerry. "Because I really felt like I'd lost the greatest and perhaps the only opportunity I would ever have to have a relationship with somebody who was really a soul mate."
Mary moved back to her hometown of Tucson. But a year later, after being lonely for her soul mate, she decided to take a big step.
"I made a phone call. I said, 'Please, come back. I miss you,'" says Mary.
Jerry missed her, too. Eleven months later, they remarried and held their reception at the local dog track, where a race was named in honor of the occasion.
For Jerry and Mary, life is good once again. Jerry and Mary now live in the Arizona desert, where they dote on their exotic menagerie of pets. Mary no longer writes music, but she's happy at home, tending to her flock.
Since this story first aired, Jerry has been in demand as a public speaker, demystifying for others the condition of autism. Together, the Newports have written self-help books for people like them. They are now working on an autobiography they hope will appeal to a larger audience.
Hollywood producers had the same idea when, inspired by Mary and Jerry, they made a film based loosely on their lives. The movie, due out later this year, captures the social discomfort that people like Jerry always feel. But at this stage in his real life, Jerry says he's come to terms with who he is.
"Rather than being obsessed with trying to be in step with the world, I've come to accept the fact that in certain ways I never will be. And I just don't hate myself for it," says Jerry. "I think that once I started learning how to love myself as I truly am, it made it easier for other people to love me the same way."