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elizabeth renzetti: in london

In an interview with The New York Times, the musician Moby talked about how he was a purist when it came to tea, preferring it untainted by milk or sugar. "It might be a function of Asperger's," he said.

"You have Asperger's?" asked the interviewer.

"No," Moby said. "I just like to pretend I do. It makes me sound more interesting." No, actually, it makes you sound like a pretentious numbskull. No matter what you think of a privileged pop star pretending to have a rather serious neurological disorder to increase his street cred, there's no doubt that Moby, for the first time in eons, has his finger on the cultural pulse. In novels, movies and on television screens, autism is suddenly the go-to disorder when you need a charmingly strange protagonist; it's become a plot device.

What links all these characters: The Phantom of the Opera, the teenaged hero of best-selling author Jodi Picoult's new novel House Rules, and the handsome, childlike title character in last year's feature film Adam? They've all got Asperger's syndrome, a kind of high-functioning autism characterized by difficulties in communicating and engaging with other people. (The Phantom didn't have Asperger's in the original 1910 Gaston Leroux novel - the condition hadn't been identified at that time - but the man who is currently playing the character onstage in London, Ramin Karimloo, has based his interpretation around the idea that the tortured composer is autistic.)

In Adam, despite a winning performance from Hugh Dancy, the title character is never more than a catalogue of "Aspie" clichés: He is obsessed with astronomy, unable to express empathy or make eye contact, refreshingly frank and unable to lie. He is, tellingly, compared to Antoine de Saint Exupéry's Little Prince - a winsome, boyish alien whose job is to impart wisdom through naiveté. Which is the main problem with how autistic people have been portrayed, at least until now: as beatific savants put on Earth to teach us "normal" folk the coarseness of our ways. (Let us say a collective prayer of denial and remove Dustin Hoffman's equation-spouting Rain Man from our consciousness.)

In Picoult's novel House Rules, 17-year-old Jacob Hunt, who was "diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome long before it became the mental-health disorder du jour," is also obsessed, in his case with criminal forensics. He is friendless and tactless, has tantrums when the slightest things change, and is terrified of the colour orange. In other words, all the boxes are ticked. He seems more like a composite from an Asperger's textbook than a fully nuanced character.

The truth, as anyone who has lived with someone "on the spectrum" will know, is that their lives are challenging, to put it diplomatically, and while they may share certain characteristics, they are as individual as fingerprints or snowflakes.

To my mind, so far, the one fictional creation that transcends the clichés is Mark Haddon's wonderful novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The teenaged amateur detective at the heart of the novel clearly has Asperger's, but the word is never mentioned, and Haddon is loath to admit it, which is precisely why it works. It's not a book about autism, it's a book about this very interesting kid who finds the world puzzling but is determined to solve its mysteries anyway.

In fact, Haddon, who is also a playwright and poet, gets miffed when that particular word is brought up. The novel "is about being different, about seeing society from the outside, and about being a writer really; it's about how we use our imagination," Haddon told Time Out magazine. "When people say, yes, but it's really about Asperger's, I usually sigh deeply and wander off."

So is Asperger's "cool" now, as Moby seems to think? Is it merely geek chic, the undiagnosed condition that may have afflicted Mozart and Einstein? Not if you ask the thousands of people who struggle every day to function at work and school in a society that may view them as quirky, but doesn't really understand how difficult it is to exist when you are, essentially, always speaking a foreign language. Or is it more likely that people share (even in some small way) the suspicion that this is all just a trendy camouflage, and agree with stand-up Denis Leary's allegedly comic observation that "your kid is NOT autistic. He's just stupid. Or lazy. Or both."

Well, Mr. Leary, about 1 per cent of the population is somewhere on the spectrum. That leaves 99 per cent of us on the outside, looking in, hoping for some insight. This week, as a major breakthrough in mapping autism's genetic links was announced, it's more pressing than ever. Turning to original sources may be the best route to enlightenment.

"I think autism is doing the same thing as other people, differently. It's just the way you do it, the processes involved. It's kind of like the difference between a Mac and a Windows PC," said Dafydd Mann, a young guitar player with Asperger's who was featured on the BBC's Autistic Superstars. The excellent documentary/talent show featured a cast of young people who sang and played not for fame or money, but because it was their only way of communicating with the world outside their immediate families. They were really good. They were also grumpy and nervous and hopeful and difficult. In other words, they just were. Like the rest of us.

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