Autism, the Disease of the Internet EraS

Every age, it seems, gives rise to its own medical hysteria rooted in our collective fears. Could the Internet's dehumanizing effect be driving us to fixate on autism?

It's a timely obsession. Just as polio captured the Cold War's feeling of paralysis, AIDS hysteria spoke to the sexual hangover from the '70s, and Prozac Nation answered the unease we felt about the '90s boom, autism is the disease of the moment for a time when computers are making us all feel less than human.

The death of Jett Travolta, whom some speculate had the brain-development disorder, has put autism in the headlines once more — though the papers hardly needed prompting. Michael Wolff, the shiny-pated media contrarian, identified the obsession with autism, but not its cause, in a recent blog post.

In its worst forms, autism is a horrible disease, incredibly painful for parents to deal with. It typically appears in a child by the age of three, interfering with the ability to communicate, blinding the victim to verbal and nonverbal conversational clues most of us take for granted.

Rain Man, the 1987 Dustin Hoffman movie, was for many the pop-culture introduction to autism, as well as the notion that it is often accompanied by unusual skills. But the mass-media fixation on it has grown as scientists have learned that autism exists on a spectrum. A milder form known as Asperger's syndrome — a combination of high intelligence and social ineptness — is thought to be practically epidemic in Silicon Valley; in 2001, Wired dubbed it the "geek syndrome." And since then, Time has put the disease on its cover twice.

The sliding scale of autism may be precisely what makes it so gripping now. The worry now: Are we all perhaps a bit autistic? Is the Internet turning us into robots, unable to express our emotions without mechanical help? Instant messaging famously suppresses social cues. Needing to type ":-)" to communicate our pleasure may give the tiniest hint of what the disease may be like.

There are a host of conspiracy theories about the rise in autism diagnoses, including the completely debunked notion it has something to do with vaccines. The consensus seems to be that we're seeing more autism cases because we're more primed to look for its symptoms. In other words, we see autism everywhere because we want to. And we look for it in our kids because we're obsessed with whether we have it ourselves.