An obsessive condition that fits in well with computing

Asperger’s syndrome was first described during the Second World War by Hans Asperger, an Austrian paediatrician, when he published a paper on four children who had problems communicating and interacting with their parents and peers. At about the same time, Leo Kanner, an American psychiatrist, used the term autism to describe another group of children with similar but more severe difficulties.

It would be another 50 years before it became accepted that they were talking about varying degrees of the same condition, now collected together under the umbrella of autistic spectrum disorder.

The half million or so people in the UK with Asperger’s syndrome lie at the milder end of the autistic spectrum, closest to, and often overlapping, “normality”. Indeed, it is common for the condition to be missed completely, as appears to be the case with Gary McKinnon – though less so these days.

It can run in families and is more common in boys and men. Typical characteristics include higher than average intelligence, an obsession with routine, a fanatical interest or hobby and difficulty in social settings. People with Asperger’s are not good at reading nonverbal signals such as facial expressions and body language, and often miss jokes. This social awkwardness makes it difficult for them to mix with others, meaning that they are often outsiders happy to pursue their interests alone: interests that often include computing.

Silicon Valley in California has one of the highest rates of Asperger’s, with some experts believing that this is because, at least in part, of the rapid expansion of an industry where it is not just OK to be a bit “geeky”, but positively encouraged. It’s even been suggested that Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, probably had the condition.

And even if computers aren’t largely built and designed by people with Asperger’s, they make a perfect hobby for those who do have the syndrome. You don’t need to understand body language to get the best out of a computer – they communicate only in binary so there are no subtle nuances to miss – meaning that someone with Asperger’s is likely to understand his computer better than he does the people around him, and spend hours on it as a result.

There is no cure or specific treatment for Asperger’s, but there are educational, behavioural and even dietary interventions (such as cutting out gluten) that can help children and adults with the condition to attain the best quality of life and maximise their potential.