Tommy Barrett is a dreamy-eyed fifth-grader who lives with his parents, twin brothers, two cats and a turtle in San Jose, Calif., the heart of Silicon Valley. He's an honor-roll student who likes math and science and video games. He's also a world-class expert on Animorph and Transformer toys. "They're like cars and trains and animals that transform into robots or humans--I love them!" he shouts exuberantly.
And that is sometimes a problem. For a time, in fact, Tommy's fascination with his toys was so strong that when they weren't around he would pretend to be the toys, transforming from a truck into a robot or morphing into a kitten. He would do this in the mall, in the school playground and even in the classroom. His teachers found this repetitive pantomime delightful but disturbing, as did his mother Pam.
By that point, there were other worrisome signs. Pam Barrett recalls that as a 3-year-old, Tommy was a fluent, even voluble talker, yet he could not seem to grasp that conversation had reciprocal rules, and, curiously, he avoided looking into other people's eyes. And although Tommy was obviously smart--he had learned to read by the time he was 4--he was so fidgety and unfocused that he was unable to participate in his kindergarten reading group.
When Tommy turned 8, his parents finally learned what was wrong. Their bright little boy, a psychiatrist informed them, had a mild form of autism known as Asperger syndrome. Despite the fact that children with Asperger's often respond well to therapy, the Barretts, at that moment, found the news almost unbearable.
That's because just two years earlier Pam and her husband Chris, operations manager of a software-design company, had learned that Tommy's twin brothers Jason and Danny were profoundly autistic. Seemingly normal at birth, the twins learned to say a few words before they spiraled into their secret world, quickly losing the abilities they had just started to gain. Instead of playing with toys, they broke them; instead of speaking, they emitted an eerie, high-pitched keening.
First Jason and Danny, now Tommy. Pam and Chris started to wonder about their children's possible exposure to toxic substances. They started scanning a lengthening roster of relatives, wondering how long autism had shadowed their family.
The anguish endured by Pam and Chris Barrett is all too familiar to tens of thousands of families across North America and other parts of the world. With a seeming suddenness, cases of autism and closely related disorders like Asperger's are exploding in number, and no one has a good explanation for it. While many experts believe the increase is a by-product of a recent broadening of diagnostic criteria, others are convinced that the surge is at least in part real and thereby cause for grave concern.