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 autism.
"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 1988 movie 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, Ph.D., 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, M.D., director of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "By e-mail, 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 communication."
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.
The three hallmarks of autism are difficulty communicating, problems with social development, and obsessive, narrow interests. These obsessions are often extremely technical. Baron-Cohen explains it in terms of "empathizing" vs. "systemizing." People on the autism spectrum are limited in their ability to comprehend, or care about, the emotions and motives of other people. But they are intensely interested in how certain things work. Their brains, he says, are wired to "systemize," or to pick out patterns in information and to discern the logical rules that govern systems.