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The Secrets of Autism The number of children diagnosed with autism and Asperger's in the U.S. is exploding. Why?

By J. Madeleine Nash

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.

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