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Virginia Hughes
24 June 2011

In the 1990s, autism rates skyrocketed throughout the world, more in some regions than others. One hotspot was Silicon Valley in California, home to many large technology companies, leading some researchers to propose that geeks — engineers, scientists and computer programmers — are more likely than others to have a child with autism.

The researcher who proposed this provocative idea, Simon Baron-Cohen, is reporting another autism hub in an information technology-rich region in the Netherlands.

Baron-Cohen argues that the finding is consistent with his 'extreme male brain' hypothesis, which holds that autism is an extreme form of the typical male brain. According to Baron-Cohen, the male brain prefers to 'systemize,' to build systems and analyze how they work, whereas the female brain tends to empathize with other people.

In techy cities with an abundance of both male and female systemizers, the theory goes, there are likely to be more children with autism than average.

Many experts have been smartly skeptical of this interpretation, pointing out several methodological factors that could have influenced the results.

In the new study, Baron-Cohen's team analyzed survey responses from 369 schools in three different Dutch regions: Eindhoven, which is known for its tech industry, and Haarlem and Utrecht, which have demographic similarities to Eindhoven but do not have a significant tech bent.

The team found that, based on school records, 2.3 percent of students in Eindhoven have a diagnosis of some type of autism. That's much higher than the 0.84 percent in Haarlem and 0.57 percent in Utrecht. The surveys showed no such differences in the rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or dyspraxia, a motor disorder.

The researchers note that the three cities have many similarities, such as population size and average household income. They assume that the difference in autism numbers is the direct result of Eindhoven's systemizing population.

But this is where I strongly disagree. The higher rate could equally be because of some other factor that separates Eindhoven from the other two cities — a quirk of its educational system, such as a higher awareness among its teachers of autism, or its population density or, who knows, its frequency of neighborhood block parties. As the blog Neuroskeptic points out, the researchers could strengthen their argument if they repeat the same analysis in several different tech regions.

Even if the results were to hold up in tech-heavy regions the world over, it would still be a big leap to say that the higher prevalence is because of more people with 'systemizing' brains.

It could be, for instance, that tech-savvy parents are better educated than average, and more likely to seek a diagnosis of autism. Or it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, with engineers and scientists looking for warning signs because they've heard of this hypothesis.

In any case, we may know more soon. Baron-Cohen and his team are planning a more thorough study in which, rather than relying on school records, they will go out into communities and screen for autism with standard tests. They also plan to look closer at social, economic and ethnic factors, and measure rates in tech hubs in other countries.

Comments

Name: RAJensen
29 June 2011 - 11:23AM

Further discussion can be read at Dorothy Bishops blog:

http://deevybee.blogspot.com/2011/06/autism-diagnosis-and-hyper-systemizing.html

Name: Pamela Rhodes
4 July 2011 - 10:09PM

My son was born in the Dutch military hospital Mathijson in Utrecht in January 1988. We were American military living in Scherpenzeel and Woudenberg from 1986 to 1989. He has had difficulties in school although highly intelligent and generally has lacked social skills. He is now 23 and is now especially socially immature and has been unable to establish independent living. At first I thought he just needed to be put out of the house, but even when out on the street, he lacks the ability to process things rationally and logically. Although now on anti-depressants, his hygiene is poor and he does not find it a problem to not accomplish many normal tasks of daily living. He encounters social coping problems in his employment and has turned to self-medicating with marijuana and prescription drugs. I never had him tested for autism however he was diagnosed with ADD, as I also have the disorder. Depression and OCD also run in our family. Is there any research to indicate a link between children born in Utrecht during that timeframe and the symptoms I am seeing?

Name: Virginia Hughes
5 July 2011 - 1:40PM

Hi Pamela,

I'm not aware of any link between Utrecht and autism. But it is true that autism, ADHD, depression and OCD have been genetically linked.

You can find out more about the symptoms of autism and getting an accurate diagnosis here:
http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html

You can find out more about the overlap of autism and ADHD/OCD in a few of our articles, such as:

https://sfari.org/news/-/asset_publisher/6Tog/content/researchers-probe-genetic-overlap-between-adhd-autism

https://sfari.org/blog/-/asset_publisher/Jb6r/content/obsessive-mice

Thanks for reading SFARI.

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