Children with Asperger's: A 21st Century Brain Trust

Ignorance about autism and Asperger's syndrome limits the possibilities for students embarking on their professional and academic careers, says BusinessWeek reader Suzanne McCain

Asperger's syndrome (AS) is characterized by social awkwardness, although many have learned to adapt so their deficits may vary. Differences may include taking things too literally, seeing rules too legalistically, having trouble understanding certain kinds of humor while finding humor in obscure details others don't follow, demonstrating brutal honesty, and not realizing when others' feelings have been hurt. Those with AS may have difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues such as facial expressions or body language and realizing when someone they are speaking to has lost interest.

Dealing with them effectively requires being more specific and direct in return. Change or stress causes agitation, which increases their odd behaviors. Humor is derived from the characterization of these types of people on the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory. As Alex Plank at, an online network for people with AS and autism, has written, "There are many historical geniuses who are thought to have had autism, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson. However, I think it's foolish to use them as evidence when I can merely point to currently living people like Nobel prize-winning economist Vernon L. Smith and actor Dan Aykroyd, who have made public statements about being diagnosed with autism."

On the online version of Susan Berfield's story on BitTorrent founder Bram Cohen (BusinessWeek, 10/16/08), some commenters have questioned whether Cohen has been taken advantage of by his company's current leadership as a result of his AS. As the mother of a son who was diagnosed with AS in 1998, just before he turned age 5, this question makes me pause. Yes, it is possible that a person with AS, while gifted, may be more easily swayed than his peers, perhaps lacking the insight to understand office politics or view the bigger picture.

Lively Debate

That said, people with AS are extremely loyal to the people around them, or the beliefs they have formulated, to a fault. How their differences benefit society and the technology sector is in their ability to focus on certain subjects to an intense degree, thus becoming self-educated experts. They are not characterized as having a low IQ, and in some cases, have a very high IQ and the ability to recall large volumes of encyclopedic knowledge within their areas of interest.

It is important to acknowledge that Cohen's diagnosis is no longer uncommon, with autism today diagnosed in 1 in 150 children. I often marvel when people initially talk down to my son, David, thinking autism must mean he is "slow." When I'm with David and I encounter our neighbor who is interested in science, I bring up a subject that engages David to draw him into the conversation.

On one occasion I asked David about tachyon shields, which led to a discussion about dark matter. My neighbor asked him if he knew about the Large Hadron Collider, which sparked an intense debate among the three of us about how it works, what it's designed to do, and what may be discovered by this experiment. Then my son mentioned the persecution of famous figures such as Galileo, or the variety of gifts exhibited by Leonardo Da Vinci, and how so much of what they hypothesized has been realized today.

Out-of-the-Box Thinking

Only when the discussion ended did my neighbor realize how much potential and genius David has. My neighbor asked me whether he will be able to contribute professionally because of his social deficits, and I wondered, "Is the world willing to let a genius's potential contributions escape because they are socially different?" I've had to inform people when they've mentioned that my son's ideas are fantastic how many of his ideas are based in science. When David was 13, his school's robotics team won a districtwide competition in Houston because he devised a design solution where a motor powered both the collection of dirt and rock samples, as well as a unit that monitors wind conditions for the Mars Rover, an example of how his out-of-the-box thinking makes a difference.

David is now 15 and continues to perform well ahead of his classmates. In all courses but one, he is self-taught out of textbooks, above his grade level. As I ponder his future, I wonder whether a major university such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Carnegie Mellon, or a private school such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, all of which would offer the kind of courses he'd like to pursue, would consider him as a student. Although he is disabled in ways that can be perceived as negative, he also has the capacity, similar to Bram Cohen, for greatness in the areas of physics and technology.

I feel confident that corporate and academic America will realize there is potential profit from the technological and other contributions that may be made by those—such as my son—who naturally think and see things differently, seek detailed data and facts, see the smallest details and hyperanalyze everything, while still being incredibly open-minded and believing that far-out things, which most of us have never even heard of, are possible.

Some people who don't know much about AS have suggested that the behavioral differences of those with Asperger's shouldn't be accommodated. Those are the very people who don't consider the contributions of those geniuses throughout history who are seen as brilliant today and whose odd behaviors are only remembered as footnotes. People with AS are simply the new diversity candidates who may, with tolerance and understanding, make huge contributions to society.