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COLUMN ONE : Against the Odds: a Love Story : Jerry and Mary Newport grew up as outcasts. Now, they have found each other--and clues to the medical mystery that tormented them.

October 23, 1995|KIM KOWSKY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Precisely 28 weeks had passed since Jerry Newport had met Mary Meinel. He had been waiting for this very moment to pop the question. Twenty-eight, after all, is his favorite number.

"First," he said, "it's a perfect number--the sum of its factors equals 28. Twenty-eight is also the sum of the integers from one to seven and I'm seven years older than her."

Looking back at their April, 1994, engagement, Jerry's obsession with numerical perfection is both amusing and disturbing. And for good reason: It is a gift that comes at a terrible cost.

Jerry has Asperger syndrome, a neurological disorder that isolates those who have it from other people, even while sometimes bestowing unusual talents.

Mary has it too. And while her gifts lie in art, she may be the only person who has ever fully appreciated his delight in numbers.

Who else but Jerry could have found such significance in the landmark fig tree in West Los Angeles where Mary said she wanted the magic moment to occur? The tree, you see, just happens to be 119 years old.

"If you divide seven into the age of the tree," he said, "you get 17, and that's one of the numbers you can make a polygon out of in a circle. But if you square 17, you get 289 and we met on the 289th day of the year."

Clearly, this couple's love story--involving everything from an exorcism and an obsession with whales to a compulsion to read license plates backward for fun--is no ordinary romance.

It is a story of triumph in the face of a potentially devastating but often unrecognized affliction.

Asperger syndrome is often described as a social communication disorder that is similar to a mild form of autism. Patients have trouble understanding subtle gestures that convey what others are thinking or feeling. As a result, they are often characterized as rude, selfish or just plain weird.

Jerry, 47, and Mary, 40, spent most of their lives as social outcasts, feeling intensely alienated from others without knowing why.

Their wedding on Aug. 19, 1994, was a poignant turn in the lives of two people who had always assumed they were too odd to find mates and who, until they found one another, had resigned themselves to live out their years on society's fringes, lonely and alone.

Their union has shown that it is possible for people with Asperger syndrome to find the kind of companionship and fulfillment that other people take for granted. And despite their communication difficulties, the Newports have become forceful advocates, as well as symbols of hope, for adults with autism or Asperger syndrome.

"They are superstars in the world of autism," said Linda Demer, chief of cardiology at UCLA and a former board member of the Autism Society of Los Angeles. "They've been a source of inspiration for a lot of people."

Syndrome a Mystery

Scientists have had so little success in unraveling the mysteries of Asperger syndrome that almost everything about it is in dispute--including its definition.

Many psychologists consider it a mild form of autism. But it was given its own category just last year in the standard manual of psychiatric disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Like autism, Asperger syndrome is identified in the manual as a "pervasive developmental disorder," affecting social interaction and communication and marked by repetitive behaviors and interests. While those who have the disorders are sensitive to sound and touch, people with Asperger syndrome show curiosity about their environment and eventually develop language and self-help skills.

In practice, however, the categories are harder to define--mostly because there is so much overlap between Asperger symptoms and those of the "high functioning" end of autism, psychologists say.

"It's not like cancer or blindness where you can at least identify who has got it," said Gary Mesibov, director of North Carolina's statewide program for people with autism. "What makes this so difficult is we don't even agree on the essential characteristics that allow you to say who the people are."

Nor is there agreement on its prevalence--although more men than women have the disorder. Some researchers say Asperger syndrome affects as many as 1 in 250 people, while others set the figure at 1 in 650.

And although researchers agree that Asperger syndrome stems from a genetically caused malfunctioning of the brain or central nervous system, no one has determined what part of the brain is affected.

There is no cure, although patients--especially children--can be coached in socially accepted behavior. But first they have to be diagnosed--a task that requires psychologists to rely on mostly subjective judgments.

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