Laura Nagle loves physics. She peruses scientific papers for her own enjoyment, and she can sometimes work out the answers to cosmological mysteries in her head when she watches documentaries about the universe. She has read, in her estimation, about 12,000 books.
You might say Nagle, 58, is a geek. But if you knew that she also has had severe problems communicating with others throughout her life, and had trouble in school because she's not "well-rounded," you might guess that she also has autism.
"I find that physics, engineering -- these things speak to my heart, and I see details, relationships and patterns that most people don't," says Nagle, who lives near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Nagle's experience speaks to a pervasive stereotype in popular culture that people with high-functioning autism -- a form of which is called Asperger's syndrome -- are geeks.
As with most generalizations, it excludes a vast swath of people on the autism spectrum who don't fit it -- plenty have interests or talents in the arts or literature, and don't care at all about traditionally geeky pursuits such as computers, science and technology.
But it's worth looking at why this image of the geek with autism has emerged, and exploring the realities of how autism and talent intertwine. Understanding the condition better is ever more important as the number of people with autism rises. The main signs and symptoms of the condition are communication problems, poor social interactions and repetitive behaviors.
Just last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that an estimated one in 88 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder. A person who has high-functioning autism and did not have a childhood delay in cognitive or language development would get a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome, although this distinction is likely to disappear in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States.
While more and more American children are found to have an autism spectrum disorder, speculation has abounded about brilliant historical figures and fictional characters having it, too.
Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, both fundamental in shaping the way we understand the universe, had characteristics of Asperger's, researchers have postulated.
Then there's TV -- take Sheldon Cooper, a character from "The Big Bang Theory." (Although the show's writers have said that the character does not have Asperger's syndrome, actor Jim Parsons told Variety that he views his role as in line with the condition.) And people with Asperger's have connected with the quirky behaviors of Dr. House from "House, M.D." and Temperance "Bones" Brennan of "Bones," although these characters have not received formal diagnoses. (For that matter, another doctor on "House, M.D." once concluded that House is simply a jerk.)
All of these characters seem obsessed with scientific inquiry, but they struggle with effective communication or maintaining relationships. (Not to mention Abed from "Community" - he's got an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction, but asked in a recent episode, "Is this a social cue?")
"[Viewers] could look at any of these characters who are ostensibly Aspies, and they could think that we have no passion because sometimes our language doesn't seem to convey deep emotions, and we are doing things that most people do not seem to find inspiring of passion," Nagle said.
And Nagle doesn't mind that the public associates genius characters with autism -- to her, they represent an idea she's passionate about: That there's room in this world for everyone, regardless of their quirks and social deficits.
"You get this idea that even if Sheldon is not a party guy, even if Sheldon is not the guy you'd want to have trying to repair your car, that maybe it's important to have a theoretical physicist or two," she said.
Others say the stereotype of the Asperger's scientific genius is unfortunate; that it overshadows the fact that many people with high-functioning autism have talents in arts and literature instead, says Teresa Bolick, a licensed psychologist who specializes in neurodevelopmental disorders. And some are not geniuses per se, they are simply fixated on specific interests.
In other words, not all smart people have Asperger's, and not all people with Asperger's have great talents. The diagnosis requires that the person have some kind of social impairment -- for instance, lack of eye contact, and not being able to interpret facial expressions, gestures and figurative speech. So a physics genius who gets along well with everyone may well not have autism.
A genetic basis for both scientific talent and autism?
There may still be an underlying connection between scientific talents and autism, however.
More study is needed to back up this theory, but one hypothesis is that geeks and people with autism are linked genetically. British autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen and colleagues published a study in 1997 suggesting that fathers and grandfathers of children with autism were more likely to work in the field of engineering, compared with fathers and grandfathers of neurotypical children.
The researchers are expanding upon their study to see if people who are good at computers and science are generally more likely to have a child with autism.
"One possibility is that the very same genes that give rise to autism, in a less severe combination, might also be giving rise to talent in the general population," said Baron-Cohen, who is a first cousin of the comedian and actor Sacha.
A larger combination of those genes could give rise to more severe forms of autism, Baron-Cohen speculated. And it could be that people who carry those genes, being similar in personality and interests, have a greater likelihood of marrying each other.
"If you were to get rid of all the autism genetics, there would be no more Silicon Valley," Temple Grandin, a best-selling author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who has autism, said in a TED talk in 2010.
Although these ideas have gained traction, they aren't based on proven scientific facts; further research is necessary to support these conclusions.
And keep in mind that as awareness grows about autism, doctors have realized that intellectual disability in autism is nowhere near 70%, as was previously thought -- it's only around 30%, Dr. Gary Goldstein, president of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, told CNN.
A darker side of the stereotype
Meanwhile, the false notion that all people with high-functioning autism are talented in the sciences persists culturally -- and that may have a detrimental effect on parents.
"Many of us in the autism community, with official diagnoses, are often asked 'What's your special science ability?' says Christopher Scott Wyatt, assistant professor of English at Robert Morris University. "I say, 'I teach poetry.' "
When speaking about autism, Wyatt, who has high-functioning autism, often fields questions from parents of children on the spectrum who wonder when they will see a math or science ability come through. The answer is: Many children don't have it. The stereotype of the geek with autism has this downside of making parents concerned if their children with the condition don't excel at science.