Some cases are easy to spot. A man with relatively normal speech who exhibits repetitive behaviors, strange speech affectations and extreme social awkwardness may easily suggest a diagnosis, psychologists say. But what about the gawky man with slicked-back hair and shirt buttoned to the neck who irritates his acquaintances with Civil War trivia? Or the "absent-minded professor" who is too absorbed by his studies to heed the social conventions of hygiene?
"There are many, many people with Asperger's who lead productive lives and are really just considered nerds," said Peter Tanguay, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Louisville, Ky., who plans to publish his study of Asperger syndrome this year.
But he added, "Unless there are fairly major disruptions of friendships and interpersonal relations with others, it shouldn't be labeled Asperger's."
Whales and Numbers
Even on first appearance, there is something noticeably odd about the Newports.
Both have a stiff gait and a maddeningly monotonous way of speaking. Jerry sounds hauntingly like a real-life version of Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, in the movie "Rain Man."
Mary is a tall, big-boned woman who favors long skirts and tie-dyed shirts. One day, she wears a cap from India over her long red hair--which turns out to be a wig. She shaves her head for her non-speaking role as a blue-tinted Bolian on the television series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
Jerry, who is tall and heavyset, keeps his longish blond hair in a tousled mop. He almost always wears jeans and a blue T-shirt featuring silk-screened dolphins and whales. He is so enamored of whales that two Halloweens ago he used chicken wire and newspaper to construct a killer whale costume that he keeps next to the sofa and strokes during conversations.
Today, the Newports sit in the living room of their tiny, cluttered apartment in West Los Angeles and talk about their first date on Nov. 28, 1993, at the Los Angeles Zoo. They had met a few weeks before at a Halloween party hosted by Adult Gathering, United and Autistic, a self-help group for adults with autism or Asperger syndrome.
Jerry recalls feeling instantly at ease with Mary. She was the first woman he had ever met who didn't make him feel self-conscious.
"We could do silly things together, like reading billboards backward and guessing what it said," he said. "Or I would turn license plate numbers into dates. Like if I saw the number 20,013, I could tell you that Oct. 17, 1955, is the 20,013th day of the century."
Mary was charmed by his mathematical abilities: "I liked it. It was a different version of what I could do with my music and art."
But they soon found they had more than their share of problems, too. Their inability to read each other's emotions made the normal adjustments that new couples face even more difficult.
Mary had to learn not to take it personally when Jerry shrank from her touch in pain. He had to learn to keep his voice down during disagreements to keep her from "emotional shutdowns" that render her speechless.
"The kinds of problems they have makes it much more difficult . . . mostly because of the difficulty [people like them] have with empathy," said B. J. Freeman, director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Program at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. "But they do very well together. . . . It's wonderful to see."
In fact, their relationship is one neither of them ever imagined possible. The lives they led before they met are case studies in the kind of personal devastation that Asperger syndrome can wreak--especially when it goes undetected.
Jerry grew up in Islip, N.Y., knowing he was different.
He didn't walk until he was nearly 2 and only learned to talk at 3 by imitating his brother's pet crow, Blackey. He never looked people in the eye, constantly chewed on his clothing and nails and had a fascination with watching paint dry.
He was 7 when his mathematical abilities began to surface. He could add up a long column of three- and four-digit numbers in his head. Other calculations--like finding square roots--quickly followed.
At school, his talent with numbers, combined with his tendency to talk incessantly in a monotone, set him apart as odd. Most of the time he was shunned, except, he says, when his classmates wanted to dazzle some newcomer with his abilities. Then they would trot him out like a circus freak and bombard him with math problems.
"I remember being in the center of all these people asking me to do stuff and answering their questions so they would go away," he said. "For me, it was a case of either getting no attention at all or . . . having to perform."
Although he came to regard his gift as a burden, it saw him through in other ways. He was accepted to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and received a bachelor of arts in math.