Autism may be more prevalent in technology centers
A new study out of Eindhoven, the Netherlands suggests that autism is more prevalent in information technology-rich urban areas, leading to further questions and conflicts within the field of autism research. The study should make for an interesting debate with another study publicized here, one which suggests that autism is not primarily genetically transmitted via parental DNA but is, instead, caused by spontaneous mutations.
Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England, a leading scientist in the field, and researcher in the current study, says the findings may apply to other IT-rich areas of the world, such as Silicon Valley.
The findings are in line with the "hyper-systemizing" theory of autism. This theory proposes that people with autism have a strong desire to understand the workings of systems, the researchers said. Such skills are valued in IT-related fields, including engineering, physics, computing and mathematics. If so, autism would of necessity have a strong genetic basis. According to this scenario, adults who are drawn to “systematizing” professions may be carriers of autism traits, though they themselves are not autistic. When these individuals marry and have children, however, they may predispose their children to the disorder.
The study was published online June 17 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, and may go a long towards explaining why genes for autism persist in the population.
The study surveyed a total of 62,505 children – an impressive statistical sampling – from schools in three different regions of the Netherlands: Eindhoven, Haarlem and Utrecht-City. The researchers asked the schools how many children were enrolled and how many had autism. For comparison, they also asked how many had two other developmental disorders: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyspraxia, which is a motor skills disorder. Autism was significantly more prevalent in Eindhoven than in the other two cities - 229 children with autism for every 10,000 children versus 84 per 10,000 in Haarlem, and 57 per 10,000 in Utrecht. The prevalence of the other two conditions was similar in all the regions.
The researchers are planning to conduct a follow-up study to validate the diagnosis of autism in the schools, since misdiagnoses of the disorder do occur and would undermine the findings. If the results stand up to further scrutiny, the study should prove a fertile starting point for conducting similar research in other IT hubs, as well as shedding more light on the mysterious condition.