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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Autism and Technical Smarts

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

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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