- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

From Scott Adams' "Dilbert" to "Revenge of the Nerds," images of the geeky, computer-obsessed, four-eyed and butter-fingered nerd fill the popular imagination.

The stereotypical nerd, with taped-over glasses and a trusty pocket protector, is a comedic figure of social ineptitude. Bumbling through shows as disparate as NBC's "Freaks and Geeks" and Fox's "The X-Files," nerds get no respect.

But things may be looking up for society's underdogs. Dr. Nicholas Putnam of the San Luis Rey Hospital in Encinitas, Calif., says "nerdiness" actually may be medically treatable.

Nerds, as a rule, have a difficult time during childhood and adolescence, when peer groups first form and boy-girl relationships are defined. Though most nerds do well in math and science, they find it excruciatingly difficult to make friends.

Ostracized from their peers because of their social awkwardness, nerds suffer repeated rejection that often leads to profound depression and aggressive acts. Of the nine school shootings in 1999, including the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., investigators identify abuse from peers as a possible motive in seven cases a sort of "Rambo"-style "Revenge of the Nerds."

In the wake of Columbine, www.slashdot.org, a tech-oriented news forum that calls itself "News for Nerds/Stuff that Matters," found a surprising reaction from its readers: sympathy for the killers. Memories of readers' own high school mistreatment constant taunts, teasing, cruel pranks, physical abuse and daily emotional trauma filled page after page of posts, spawned by New Jersey media critic Jon Katz's story about persecution in American high schools, "Voices from the Hellmouth."

Mr. Katz's story trio, published on the Web site a year ago, cites reader anecdotes like that of "Peter from Boston," who said, "I am a geek and very proud of it. I have been beaten, spit on, pushed, jeered at. Food is sometimes thrown at and on me while teachers pretend not to see.

"People trip me. Jocks knock me down in the hallway. They steal my notes, call me a geek and a fag and a freak, tear up my books, have pissed in my locker twice. The really amazing thing is, they are the most popular people in the school, while everybody thinks I'm a freak."

Peter's experiences are, unfortunately, not unique. Many other readers recounted memories of abuse.

"I went from preschool to third grade, and even then I was beaten daily," says Derek, 16, posting under the name "Squierstrat." "I'm not … slammed into a locker or whatever, I'm talking about being beaten. I was picked on, humiliated publicly … and people wonder why these kids hated others? Quit looking at the media around and start looking at who they hated!

"P.S. No, I do not condone what those punks [at Columbine] did, it was sick and wrong! My heart still breaks thinking about the footage of those girls crying. But I do understand them."

Growing up a nerd in real life is not funny, says Dr. Putnam, who identifies the cause of some nerds' social problems as part of a painful learning disorder. His theory: Some nerds suffer from a mild form of Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), characterized by an inability to read faces, body language and tonal shifts for emotion and context. Nerds often speak in a highly formal monotone, become fixated on a single subject easily and avoid eye contact.

Mild PDD, like Asperger's syndrome and nonverbal learning disorder, is connected to autism, because it is a dysfunction of the right temporal lobe, the part of the brain that handles the understanding of facial expression and communication. This part of the right brain does not develop as well as the analytical left brain.

The severity and presence of these symptoms may vary from person to person. Dr. Putnam describes the difference between extreme and mild cases as the difference between the lead characters in "Rain Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, and "Forrest Gump," starring Tom Hanks.

Nerds get picked on in school, he says, because they misread social cues, such as determining what fashions are cool and whether teasing from peers is good-natured joshing or a mean-spirited attack. Clues such as tone and expression that would allow an observer to figure out the situation don't register; thus, children with this syndrome don't know how to react. Their misunderstanding of the situation and inability to give off the correct nonverbal signals only makes the teasing worse.

Where nerds do excel is through Internet chat and e-mail, because those types of exchanges do not depend on reading vocal cues, such as tone or pacing. Thus, the 1990s has been a brighter decade for many nerds, who have turned to the computer to satisfy their desire for social contact.

Identifying nerdy social behavior as part of a developmental disorder, rather than as a series of personality quirks, has opened new avenues of research, treatment and therapy.

"Most people who contact me are very relieved to think that something is responsible for this situation," Dr. Putnam says. "If it's a disorder, then it can be treated."

Treatment takes the form of social-skills training, where even basic functions such as maintaining eye contact must be taught logically. Therapy often coincides with treatment for depression and anxiety.

However, Dr. Putnam cautions against indiscriminately diagnosing individuals with PDD. "Most bright people do not have this syndrome," he says. "Most very bright people are socially competent." This syndrome affects approximately three out of every 100 children, who have absolutely no idea how to react in a new social situation, nor how to maintain a normal conversation.

"Some people have very good skills at reading people a certain way, because they were born that way," Dr. Putnam says. Con artists, for example, are extremely adept at reading body language and telling their targets what they wish to hear.

Unlike those who intentionally choose to make statements through their dress and appearance, PDD sufferers typically want to fit in, but don't understand how to do so.

Understanding that most nerds, PDD sufferers or not, have trouble reading nonverbal signals is key, the doctor says, adding that nerds can learn to function socially.

The economic success of Silicon Valley and Microsoft founder Bill Gates also has begun to make nerdiness oddly fashionable. The rise of geek-oriented media with a more sympathetic look at the nerd, includes the critically acclaimed NBC series "Freaks and Geeks" and Mr. Katz's book "Geeks," chronicling two boys' exit from Idaho through Internet resources.

These small advances may not blunt the trauma of childhood, but for adults, the nerd may triumph.

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