Sixteen years ago, Wired magazine published The Geek Syndrome, an article about the dramatic increase in the number of children in Silicon Valley diagnosed with autism and Asperger’s. Written by Steve Silberman, a long-time contributor to Wired and the recent author of the award-winning Neurotribes, a study of autism and the need for neurodiversity, The Geek Syndrome popularized the term Asperger’s almost overnight, acting as an urgent call to recognize the widespread presence of Asperger’s in the mainstream of American society.
Silberman chronicled a dramatic surge in the number of children diagnosed with autism throughout California during the 1990’s. In particular, he noted the relatively large number of children with this condition in the counties encompassing Silicon Valley, leading him to the startling conclusion that the concentration of parents employed in the technology sector, who themselves were on the autistic spectrum, was largely responsible for such a disparity.
Why is this? Most experts agree that genetics play a crucial role in creating the neurological conditions for autism and Asperger’s. Studies show, for example, that if one identical twin is autistic, 90 percent of the time the other twin will also have autism. Similarly, having one child diagnosed with autism increases the risk of a second child being autistic, from 1 in 500, the expected value, to 1 in 20.
In his Wired article, Silberman recognized that the risk of being on the autistic spectrum occurs not from having siblings with that condition but from parents who are themselves on the spectrum. He then drew a line from the general characteristics of Asperger’s, the milder form of autism, to the type of people living and working in Silicon Valley and the prevalence of Asperger’s in that area. The technology industry, he argues, attracts a certain type of worker, and among these people are a higher percentage of those with Asperger’s. Because like-minded people attract each other, people with Asperger’s in Silicon Valley are joining together and having children, many of whom carry the traits of their parents.
Silberman acknowledged that genetics is not the only factor in the rise of Asperger’s. No doubt a complex interplay of multiple causes, including environmental and other, as yet unknown factors, makes someone susceptible to Asperger’s, yet the role of genetics is well known and suggests a compelling explanation for the rise of Asperger’s in areas where there is a concentration of high technology.
The Geek Syndrome caused a sea change in notions about the origins of Asperger’s, pulling it out from behind long-held assumptions that poisons, vaccines, parenting styles, measles, even milk are likely causes and focusing on well-established, research-based, explanations of the genetically activated neurodevelopment formation of Asperger’s. Yet, Silberman was not singularly focused on assortative mating, the process of like-minded people mating more frequently than would be expected.
He recognized that an increase in diagnoses might have a role to play in the high concentration of Asperger’s found in Silicon Valley. As more people hear about Asperger’s and descriptions of the condition find their way into the news and popular culture, more people are diagnosed with it. In addition, the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s are arguably subjective. Diagnostic features like, “persistent impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction” and “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities” are prone to subjective interpretations and misunderstandings. After all, no matter what their training and their experience, clinicians are going to differ in their interpretation of “reciprocal social communication” to use one example.
Notwithstanding the debate about causes and incidence of Asperger’s in adults, for many who felt socially alienated, who blamed themselves for it and suffered the corresponding distress, knowing more about why they have Asperger’s and realizing they are not alone has brought immense relief. No longer an exotic condition, confined to a few, isolated individuals, Asperger’s came out from under a veil of mystery and came to receive the serious attention and respect that it deserves. For this, we have The Geek Syndrome to thank.