When Robert Vaughn's kindergarten teacher asked her students to name something larger than a TV, the precocious 5-year-old answered, "The entire universe." When she asked for something smaller than a TV, Robert replied, "The nucleus of a carbon atom." These aren't the responses you'd expect from a kindergartner, but as Robert's mother, Laurajean, points out, nothing about her son's development has ever been typical.
"Intellectually, Robert is way beyond his peers," the Wallingford, Connecticut, mom says of her now-9-year-old son. "But he can't do many of the things they can do, and it's frustrating for him." He has never had a playdate, he's just learning how to initiate a conversation with other kids, and he even has trouble looking someone in the eye.
Laurajean affectionately refers to her son as "the little professor." An energetic redhead with round glasses that he periodically pushes to the bridge of his nose with one finger, Robert speaks very rapidly. He tries to pack in as much information as possible about spaceships and galaxies, his current obsessions. "I prefer talking to adults more than children," Robert says matter-of-factly. "I like to monologue, and kids won't listen as long as adults will."
Robert has Asperger's syndrome, a newly recognized developmental disorder that's related to autism. Most people -- including many doctors, psychologists, and educators -- know little, if anything, about it. Unlike most autistic children, kids with Asperger's often have advanced vocabularies that make them seem more gifted than disabled. But socially, they lack even the most basic skills.
The condition was first recognized in 1944 by Viennese pediatrician Hans Asperger, but his work was not introduced to the English-speaking world until the 1980s. Although Asperger's syndrome is still relatively rare, diagnosed cases have been on the rise since 1994, when it was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (the bible for the psychiatric profession). Studies suggest that anywhere between 1 in 500 and 1 in 10,000 people suffer from Asperger's, and about eight out of nine people diagnosed with the disorder are boys.
Some advocates believe an environmental factor may be contributing to the steady increase, but most experts argue that kids with Asperger's syndrome were simply not diagnosed-or were misdiagnosed- before the disorder became official. "These kids have always been here, but nobody knew what to do with them," says Australian psychologist Tony Attwood, Ph.D., author of Asperger's Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals (Taylor & Francis) and one of the world's leading experts on the disorder.
Although Asperger's -- and autism in general -- was once believed by many doctors to be the result of poor parenting, scientists now know that it is caused by deficits or delays in the development of the part of the brain normally involved in social reasoning. "Most people know how to make friends, how to read a face, or how to respond to someone's feelings without even thinking," Dr. Attwood explains. "But children with Asperger's don't."
In fact, researchers at Yale University School of Medicine, in New Haven, Connecticut, detected a difference between the MRI scans of brains of people with Asperger's syndrome and those of a typical brain. When most people look at a human face, a different area of the brain is activated than when they look at an object. But people with Asperger's perceive faces as if they were inanimate objects.
That probably helps explains why kids with Asperger's syndrome lack empathy; they don't realize that other people may have thoughts and interests that are different from their own. They'll interrupt a conversation and start spewing out facts about their pet interest-which could be something as arcane as medieval history, deep-fat fryers, or ceiling fans -- even if it has nothing to do with what the other children are talking about.
Not surprisingly, researchers are finding a genetic component to all autistic spectrum disorders. "If you have one autistic child, your chance of having another is 1 in 20," says Fred R. Volkmar, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at Yale who is currently studying 900 families of children with Asperger's syndrome. "Although the definitive data has not come out yet, we think that 30 to 40 percent of the immediate family members of a person with the disorder have at least some social difficulties, if not full-blown Asperger's." Robert Vaughn's 16-year-old brother, Charles, also has Asperger's, and his 12-year-old brother, David, is a high-functioning autistic.