Erasing Autism: Scientists are closing in on the genes linked to autism. So why is Ari Ne’eman so worried?

Erasing Autism

Erasing Autism

From Newsweek, It’s spring in Washington, and Ari Ne’e-man, with his navy suit and leather brief-case on wheels, is in between his usual flurry of meetings. Ne’eman is a master networker, a guy you’d think was born in a campaign office and bred in the halls of the Capitol. He’s fluent in policy-speak and interacts seamlessly with high-level officials (he’s just had lunch with the acting vice chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and inquisitive reporters alike. He’s formal but sociable and has a well-timed sense of humor. He also has a problem with velvet. I knew this about Ne’eman—he’d mentioned it when we first started talking more than a year ago—but now, in a D.C. coffee shop, he gets into the sensory details. His father used to drive a car that had fuzzy velvet-like cushioning, and it made Ne’eman crazy to sit in it. “I’d wince because I’d think about how it would feel to get that under your fingernails,” he says. I think I see him shudder at the memory.

Ari Ne’eman is 21 years old and has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning diag-nosis on the wide-ranging autism spectrum. Ne’eman’s velvet aversion is triggered somewhere deep in his brain, a brain that he happens to relish. He doesn’t want anybody to mess with or, God forbid, cure his Asperger’s. It’s who he is, who he’s always been. It’s why he’s had ob-sessive interests since toddlerhood. At 2½, he saw a dinosaur skeleton at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and announced, “That’s a pterodactyl.” From there he fixated on baseball, reciting players’ names and stats ad nauseam, whether or not anyone was listening—a behavior experts call perseveration. Later it was constitutional law. His friend Ben DeMarzo remembers driving with Ne’eman and two other classmates one high-school weekend. DeMarzo and the others wanted to listen to music—the Beatles were a favorite—but Ne’eman had other plans. “Ari made us listen to Supreme Court oral arguments. It was brutal,” DeMarzo tells me. He was outnumbered—how’d he win? I ask. DeMarzo laughs. “Ari always wins,” he says.

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