In the opening scene of The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg portrays a cold Mark Zuckerberg getting dumped by his girlfriend, who is exasperated by the future Facebook founder's socially oblivious and obsessive personality. Eisenberg's Zuckerberg is the stereotypical Silicon Valley geek — brilliant with technology, pathologically bereft of social graces. Or, in the parlance of the Valley: 'on the spectrum'. Few scientists think that the leaders of the tech world actually have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which can range from the profound social, language and behavioural problems that are characteristic of autistic disorder, to the milder Asperger's syndrome. But according to an idea that is creeping into the popular psyche, they and many others in professions such as science and engineering may display some of the characteristics of autism, and have an increased risk of having children with the full-blown disorder.
The roots of this idea can largely be traced to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, UK. According to a theory he has been building over the past 15 years, the parents of autistic children, and the children themselves, have an aptitude for understanding and analysing predictable, rule-based systems — think machines, mathematics or computer programs. And the genes that endow parents with minds suited to technical tasks, he hypothesizes, could lead to autism when passed on to their children, especially when combined with a dose of similar genes from a like-minded mate1.