Autism and Technical Smarts

Experts explain why some people with autism are good fits for technically demanding jobs.

From the WebMD Archives

The Internet can be a social paradise for high-functioning autistic people and people with Asperger's syndrome. Here, the nonverbal niceties of social interaction that they find so perplexing don't apply. People who might strike others as gauche in person often fit in perfectly well on Internet message boards.

A Web link to an autism screening test posted recently on Digg.com, a tech news site, generated hundreds of comments from users. Many self-described computer geeks took the online test, for which a score of 16 is considered average, and a score of 32 or higher suggests autism.

"Twenty. Not autistic, just plain geek," one user commented.

"Thirty-eight, definitely 38. Time for Judge Wapner," wrote another, a reference to a TV show watched obsessively by an autistic character in the movie The Rain Man.

Diagnosing Autism

Of course, you can't diagnose anything by taking a quiz on the Internet. "It is only a screening instrument. It is not a substitute for a full diagnostic assessment," says the test's author, Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, a psychology professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, England.

"In addition, the [test] tells you if you have lots of traits but it does not tell you if these traits are causing problems. A diagnosis is only given if the person is suffering in some way," he tells WebMD.

But if nothing else, the lively discussion thread on Digg.com, and similar activity at other online techie hangouts like Slashdot, illustrates that many of them are inclined to identify with autism.

"It's been said that people with autism invented the Internet," Eric Hollander, MD, director of the Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, tells WebMD. "By email you don't have to read people's nonverbal social cues. You don't have to look at body language or facial expressions. It's just the verbal content of communication."

Not only does the Internet downplay autistic social deficits, but the language of computers also allows some people with autism to give full expression to their exceptional abilities.

Continued

Asperger's Syndrome

Autism is a developmental brain disorder that includes many different symptoms, with a broad range of severity. People with the disorder are said to fall somewhere along the "autism spectrum." Some are severely disabled, but others may only exhibit mild symptoms. IQ levels can also vary significantly.

Those with normal and above-average intelligence are said to have high-functioning autism. Asperger's syndrome is closely related. Identified for the first time in 1944 by Viennese psychologist Hans Asperger, it wasn't officially classified as a unique disorder until 1994. It shares all the features of high-functioning autism except that people with Asperger's don't have early delays in developing language.

Baron-Cohen studies the relationship between technical smarts and autistic tendencies, and he has developed a new theory about it.

Brain Wiring

The three hallmarks of autism are difficulty communicating, problems with social development, and obsessive, narrow interests. These obsessions are often extremely technical. Baron-Cohen explains it in terms of "empathizing" vs. "systemizing." People on the autism spectrum are limited in their ability to comprehend, or care about, the emotions and motives of other people. But they are intensely interested in how certain things work. Their brains, he says, are wired to "systemize," or to pick out patterns in information and to discern the logical rules that govern systems.

That means people with Asperger's and high-functioning autism often have great talents for creating and analyzing mechanical systems, such as engines, or abstract systems, like mathematics and computer programs. Baron-Cohen recently surveyed undergrads at Cambridge and found significantly more math majors diagnosed with autism compared with students majoring in other disciplines, such as medicine, law, and social science. These are all brainy subjects, but mathematics is best suited to a systemizing mind.

Baron-Cohen's research also found that Cambridge students pursuing math, physics, and engineering were more likely to have autistic family members compared with students of literature.

Spike in Autism Cases

Autism used to be considered a rare disorder, but current estimates place the number of children with autism spectrum disorders somewhere between one in 500 and one in 166. There has been a spike in autism rates over the past two decades, but the cause is unknown and very controversial. Baron-Cohen is now investigating whether what he terms "assortative mating" may play some role in it.

He proposes that people who may carry genes for autism can have strong systemizing traits, which leads them to pursue careers in science and technology, where they meet like-minded mates and have children who turn out to be autistic. To test this idea, he is studying places like California. The California state health department reported in 2003 that autism cases doubled between 1998 and 2002, which coincides with the Internet technology boom.

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Jobs and Autism

No one has yet taken a head count of people with high-functioning autism or Asperger's among the ranks of engineers, physicists, and computer programmers. Popular belief holds that places like NASA and Silicon Valley are havens for them.

To Nancy Minshew, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, that's beside the point. Far too many, she says, are not employed at all. Only about one-third have jobs, and many of them are underemployed.

One of the best-known Asperger's success stories is that of Temple Grandin, who carved out a unique career designing systems for managing livestock and who has written books about her experience. "If she had to go through human resources, she'd be a failure," Minshew tells WebMD. "For some reason, we think that they have to pass socially-based interviews in order to do a technological job. Most of the people with Asperger's and autism are going to fail and never get a job."

Minshew says there are countless jobs -- not just in technology -- that people with autism could do better than anyone else. "A man in construction said, 'I need a tile layer that will lay tile straight,' and I said, 'I'll give you somebody that'll give you a new definition of straight.'"

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES: Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, professor of psychology, director, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, England. Eric Hollander, MD, director, Seaver and New York Autism Center of Excellence, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Nancy Minshew, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. CDC web site: "How common are Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?" California Department of Developmental Services web site: "Autism Spectrum Disorders, Changes in the California Caseload, An Update: 1998 Through 2002." Baron-Cohen, S. Autism, 1998; vol 2: pp 296-301. Howlin, P. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, February 2004; vol 45: pp 212-229. Baron-Cohen, S. Archives of Disease in Childhood, January 2006; vol 91: pp 2-5. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, June 2005. Cambridge Encyclopedia of Child Development; "Autism," Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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