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Is Silicon Valley a Breeding Ground for Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Is Silicon Valley a Breeding Ground for Aspergers?
Silicon Valley is not the incubator for Autism Spectrum Disorder many believe it is.

In 2001, Wired Magazine published an article suggesting that Silicon Valley and other high tech hubs attract a high incidence of adults who either are diagnosed or could be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

The argument goes that internet companies employ large numbers of computer programmers, engineers, mathematicians and others who work with predictable, rule-based systems like computer hardware and software, and that these people have a greater genetic predisposition for Autism Spectrum Disorder than those in other professions.

The association between Autism and the “geek culture” is easy to see. The National Library of Medicine describes individuals with ASD as having an intense interest in a particular subject. Often they are able to remember vast amount of detail in their area of interest. They tend to be rigid about their established routines and strongly resist disruptions to those routines.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, they have a “one-sided, self-focused approach,” in which they act in an aloof manner, lack interest in their peers, have trouble understanding societal implications of their actions and generally have poor communication skills.

The reputation of Autism Spectrum Disorder as the “geek syndrome” has become more prominent in the popular culture and the relationship between technological aptitude and Autism has now become taken for granted.

All that is needed is proof that high tech careers and Autism Spectrum Disorder go hand in hand.

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Silicon Valley

Researchers agree that genes play a crucial role in laying the neurological foundations of autism, including higher functioning autism, of which Autism Spectrum Disorder is one type. Studies have shown that if one identical twin is autistic, there’s a 90 percent chance that the other twin will also have the disorder. If parents have had one autistic child, the risk of their second child being autistic rises from 1 in 500 to 1 in 20. After two children with the disorder, the odds are 1 in 3.

The 2001 Wired article suggested that the high incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Silicon Valley is due not just to the large number geeks working in the high tech industry but also because they are having children together and in doing so passing the predisposition to Autism along. In effect, geeks are begetting geeks.

The Case Against Autism Spectrum Disorder in Silicon Valley

Although the Wired article generated interest in Silicon Valley and other high tech centers as incubators for Autism Spectrum Disorder, actual facts don’t appear to support this connection.

In 2010, an analysis of the geographic distribution of autism in California found that the regions of the state with higher concentrations of autism are ones where the parents are more educated, i.e. college graduates vs. high-school graduates. Education, not the type of profession, such a computer programming or engineering, was the key variable.

A 2009 study of the connection between parents’ professions and the probability of their children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders found that mothers in high tech jobs were slightly more likely  (6.7% vs. 4.0%) to have children with autism than mothers with similar educations working in different industries. No evidence was found that fathers in  high tech fields had a greater likelihood of having children with autism.

Other research looking a technology hub in the Netherlands, while finding a higher than normal incidence of autism in that city compared to comparable cities that did not have high-tech industries, did not disclose the parental age or level of education – both of which are positively correlated with an autism diagnosis-or whether the parents worked in the IT industry.

Numerous studies have shown the parents who have children later in life are at a higher risk of having children with developmental delays. There is also a strong correlation between higher levels of education and age of child rearing. Suggestions have been made that people who have advanced degrees tend to have children later in life, perhaps the reason for the most significant indicators of risk for having autistic children – education and age.

Furthermore, parents who are more educated are also more likely to be aware of the symptoms of autism and to seek a diagnosis, and consequent services, for their children.

The link between Autism Spectrum Disorder and Silicon Valley has a certain appeal. Given the popular notion that geeks, together with their social awkwardness, focused interests, and poor communication inhabit the Valley, it’s not hard to imagine a preponderance of Autism Spectrum Disorder in that area. The only problem is-it’s not necessarily true.


Dr. Kenneth Roberson

Dr. Kenneth Roberson is an Adult Autism Psychologist in San Francisco with over 30 years of experience. Click below to ask a question or schedule an appointment.

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