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Autism and Technical Smarts

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

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.

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.'"

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