Exploring autism and technology
August 13, 2006 5:09 PM   Subscribe

Autism is growing, especially in the Silicon Valley. We’ve talked of this twice before, but what are we missing about the connection between autism, geekhood, and the Silicon Valley? Let’s talk about this more [inside].
posted by Milkman Dan (80 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
1. Autism is growing, especially in the Silicon Valley.

2. Autism’s growth in the Valley is connected to geekhood and genetics, and was reported long ago by Wired, Time and the BBC.

3. Most say this geographically-concentrated increase is just because of male and female techies hooking up.

4. However, saying it is just a geek-mating thing is oversimplifying the issue.

5. What if it is the chemicals and products in the soil and the technology that is contributing to autism’s growth? Could this be more than genetics, than mating, than developmental disorders?

What are the clues?

1. The existence of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, whose website says:

“The health impacts of the mixtures and material combinations in the products often are not known. The production of semiconductors, printed circuit boards, disk drives and monitors uses particularly hazardous chemicals, and workers involved in chip manufacturing are now beginning to come forward and reporting cancer clusters. In addition, new evidence is emerging that computer recyclers have high levels of dangerous chemicals in their blood.”

2. Wikipedia’s list of all the materials used in semi-conductors.

3. “Exposure to environmental chemicals” is one of the (disputed) causes of autism listed by The Autism Society for America. provides answers for what causes autism. This Atlanta health unit says the same.

4. Autism seems to be growing in areas that are rich in the materials needed for the production of technology .

5. We’ve seen autistic people get lost in obsessive geekdom. Does this become some bizarre cyclical problem of disorder, geography, environment, reliance and technology?

Let’s talk.

(A Post-Script: One all-caps web-nut is trying to tell people that the “autism epidemic” is being caused by trans-fats. In an attempt to implicate fast-food industries, he asks “What has changed in America since 1980 that would cause an epidemic of autism???” Sure, Trans-Fat Dude, the fast-food industry has changed. But more dramatically, so has personal computing.)
posted by Milkman Dan at 5:10 PM on August 13, 2006

breathing all that silicon can't be good for you.
posted by quonsar at 5:20 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

the problem with this is that autism is growing in many places, not just technological centers ... it's my suspicion that there isn't any one overall cause for it ... genetics, chemicals in the environment, early diseases, all could play a role ... as could better diagnosis of autism

this is a tough question ...
posted by pyramid termite at 5:22 PM on August 13, 2006

Everything you've linked here is arguable, including the claim that autism is growing -- which could be the result of greater effectiveness in diagnosing issues, as well as how the definition of autism has been expanded over the past 20 years. It's no longer OK to just say a child has problems -- now you have to give him a technical label. And if that's not good enough, we have expanded the definition of PDD-NOS, a catchall label for everything that can't be otherwise quantified.

As the parent of a child with delayed speech and autistic-like behaviors, I've felt first-hand the desperate need for parents of truly autistic children to lay blame, any blame, on something, as the cause of the issue, if only to make themselves feel better. I've also seen school districts go out of their way to apply a label in order to make it easier on themselves to do their jobs. So, don't fall into the "it's an epidemic" trap.
posted by frogan at 5:22 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

btw, PDD-NOS literally stands for "pervasive developmental disability -- not otherwise specified."
posted by frogan at 5:23 PM on August 13, 2006

autism is growingdiagnosis of autism is growing
posted by riotgrrl69 at 5:25 PM on August 13, 2006

Frogan, that's sound advice. It's true, people crave labels and blame to put themselves at ease. To focus on getting the diagnosis straight is to ignore what really matters: the health of the child itself.

PDD-NOS: I'd never heard of that...what an absurd catch-all. You've got the "Not Quite Normal But We Can't Tell Why" disease. How sad and demeaning...
posted by Milkman Dan at 5:30 PM on August 13, 2006

Someone link to that video game addict.
posted by fire&wings at 5:30 PM on August 13, 2006

I submit this webpage without any emotional investment in what it says--
posted by revonrut at 5:36 PM on August 13, 2006

Are children simply be divided into the Dyslexic, the Autistic and those with ADHD now?
posted by sien at 5:44 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

They don't actually make most of the stuff in silicon valley.

No one is bringing up the rise in autism awareness as a possible reason for the increased diagnosis of autism, which seems like the most likely reason to me. All the other hypotheses just seem like grasping at straws to me.
posted by delmoi at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2006

Gee, I wonder if it has anything to do with the toxic solvents used to manufacture silicon chips?
posted by caddis at 5:45 PM on August 13, 2006

Can you imagine what would happen if someone found a massively strong link between a chemical and a high-functioning disorder like Asperger's Disease?

Think of a corrupt government who could attempt to engineer a workforce high in various types of autism, in the hopes of building an outsourced-software industry...
posted by suckerpunch at 5:46 PM on August 13, 2006

"PDD-NOS: I'd never heard of that...what an absurd catch-all."

It's not all that absurd. My younger son has been diagnosed PDD-NOS because he displays almost all of the "classic" symptoms of Autism (severe speech delay,failure to make eye contact,lining toys up in a certain order instead of playing with them appropriately,does not interact with his peers, etc...) except that he will seek out interaction with family members. He has been evaluted by several neuropsycologists and they said it was a very close call but opted for a PDD-NOS diagnosis instead of Autism.
posted by MikeMc at 5:48 PM on August 13, 2006

Are children simply be divided into the Dyslexic, the Autistic and those with ADHD now?
Don't forget Oppositional Defiant Disorder.

It sounds like frogan has a good handle on this sort of thing. A lot of this seems to stem from the desire to label and medicalize a wide range of behaviour, from the merely difficult to the truly pathologic. This is especially true now that there are numerous incentives for school districts to "diagnose" problem children and remove them from mainstream classes.

I hope things turn out well for your family, frogan.
posted by TedW at 6:16 PM on August 13, 2006

I have no proof, just a hunch, but I always wondered about the introduction of MTBE in gasoline and the increase in autism.
It would be interesting to track California rates against the national average. On another note this is an interesting article.
posted by thedailygrowl at 6:18 PM on August 13, 2006

Well, I was the writer who first broke this news, nearly five years ago now in my story for Wired, linked above, called "The Geek Syndrome." Unfortunately, I just saw this FPP, and am rushing out the door, so can't take the care that I'd like to in this response. I'll try to weigh in here tomorrow. But before anyone rushes in here and posts "It's obviously an environmental issue!" or "It's obviously an issue with changing diagnostic criteria!" or "It's obviously a genetic issue!", I suggest reading my story, which provides a lot of useful background information.

It's not "obviously" any of those factors. It's a very complex issue, even five years later. I'll try to come back tomorrow and explain what I've learned since writing the story.
posted by digaman at 6:27 PM on August 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned the widespread idea that mercury in vaccines has a role in autism. Does everyone here dismiss that entirely? Has it been conclusively debunked by sound studies? I've seen many statements saying so - usually in contemptuous tones - but never from sources I would consider unbiased.

The mercury theory is not exclusive with other possible factors. I would say that the geek-mating phenomenon, environmental toxins and other things should all be considered until conclusively ruled out.
posted by jam_pony at 6:38 PM on August 13, 2006

PDD-NOS: I'd never heard of that...what an absurd catch-all. You've got the "Not Quite Normal But We Can't Tell Why" disease. How sad and demeaning...

Perhaps, but it is better than pushing a person into a diagnosis that doesn't fit their symptoms. Sometimes a catch-all diagnosis is a way to dismiss examination of a person's problems (for example, the defunct diagnosis of "female cancer," used to describe any cancer a female had), but I don't think this is going on here. I'm familiar with the field and reputable care providers know that a diagnosis is not a definition of symptoms. "PDD-NOS" is taken to mean that a person's symptoms do not fit any existing profile.

Some inherently biased medical terms, such as "female cancer," are no longer used in medical language while some, such as "hysterectomy" in place of "uterectomy" remain, but the "NOS" label seems neutral to me. Consider whether it is inherently demeaning, or whether it has that effect in specific instances because individuals use it as a vehicle for their own prejudices.

Put it this way: a case file comes across a person's desk. Under "diagnosis," is it better to see "?" or a blank, or is it better to see "PDD-NOS" and be able to look it up in the DSM and see this:
"This category should be used when there is a severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction associated with impairment in either verbal or nonverbal communication skills or with the presence of stereotyped behavior, interests, and activities, but the criteria are not met for a specific Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia, Schizotypal Personality Disorder, or Avoidant Personality Disorder. For example, this category includes "atypical autism"—presentations that do not meet the criteria for Autistic Disorder because of late age at onset, atypical symptomatology, or subthreshold symptomatology, or all of these...." via
Also, what MikeMc said.
posted by halonine at 6:38 PM on August 13, 2006

1. Autism is growing, especially in the Silicon Valley.
2. Autism’s growth in the Valley is connected to geekhood and genetics, and was reported long ago by Wired, Time and the BBC.

Neither of these are accepted as fact by the scientific community. There is lots of good info in Wired, Time and the BBC, but they're not science journals and it makes sense to question whether they're giving you the whole story. Before deciding such an epidemic exists, consider the following peer-reviewed journal article written by actual scientists: Three reasons not to believe in Autism epidemic.
posted by drmarcj at 6:44 PM on August 13, 2006

Well, digaman certainly aroused my curiosity, I will definitely reread this post tomorrow.
posted by Vindaloo at 6:45 PM on August 13, 2006

My daughter was dx'd with Asperger's right before she went to college. I come from a weird geeky family, so we always just thought she was a bit weirder than the rest of us.

The more we learned about Asperger's, the more we realized my Aunt displayed the exact same symtoms 40 years ago.

I come from poor country folk, I worked my way through school to get my degree to work in IT, and have always been pretty geeky. It was only once I started working and making money (and having insurance) that I was able to access testing and proper care for my daughter.

SO, I think that reason we are seeing more people dx'd with autism spectrum disorders is that the syndroms are just now being recognized in people. I think now that doctors are becoming more familiar with the symptoms, we will see alot of adults start to be diagnosed as well.

Right now, if you have money and access to health care you have a shot.....what happens if you are poor and everyone thinks you are just being stubborn and weird?

I think the answer is you self-medicate, at least that is what my aunt did. That is what killed her. :(
posted by gminks at 6:51 PM on August 13, 2006

As delmoi said, I feel that chemicals local to the area can't be the cause of the raise in silicon valley. It may be called silicon valley, but semiconductors, by and large, are NOT made in silicon valley. They were made there 20 years ago, but not now. They're far more likely to be made in taiwan, mainland china, or East Fishkill, NY.

Semiconductor plants have well-known health issues, but here in Silicon Valley, we don't really have any.
posted by JZig at 6:57 PM on August 13, 2006

digaman, your article and an NPR show on Asperger's are what nudged me to get my daughter tested.

I think it started with the NPR show (several people called me telling me to look up Asperger's), but that led to reading your article. You have no idea what an impact that article had on my family......thank you.
posted by gminks at 6:59 PM on August 13, 2006

Consider my case: both of my parents are definitely not techies: dad was in the navy for most of my childhood years as a guy who listened to radios all day, mum was a stay at home housewife. Yet after reading Songs of a Gorilla Nation and listening to a former housemate who's 12 year old nephew was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome from birth (who better to assess someone with the condition than someone who's spent over a decade with them) that I too have Aspergers, a form of autism. The kicker here is that my job situation has never been great from a financial standpoint so no wiggle room for therapy or meds, just the knowledge that from year to year throughout my life I will be misunderstood and discriminated against until. . . whatever. Or perhaps I should just pull a 'Horatio Alger' and just pull myself up by my bootstraps, accept my situation and 'just get over it' and move on, and by doing so become one of the many, many million-airs out there. Or perhaps society as a whole should just get a clue that not every human being out there is an aryan and stop using that stupid. clueless, ignorant nostrum as a lazy way out of a very, very complex problem.
posted by mk1gti at 7:00 PM on August 13, 2006

Maybe its so many super smart people breeding with other super smart people...In the dog show world it is more likely the "purer" the line the dumber the dog due to interbreeding... Maybe its like in the old days when royalty would only breed with cousins and all kinds of wierd things started happening with the genetics. Maybe that is where the autism comes from ...just too many brains. I had a neighbor with an autistic savant son . That kid could just listen to a song and sit down at the piano like he had been practicing that song for years..It didnt matter how many times I saw him do it I was amazed and enchanted.

I personally think that the diagnosis is just better than before. Back when all misunderstood children were add/adhd or just problems.
posted by meeshell at 7:01 PM on August 13, 2006

"I personally think that the diagnosis is just better than before."

I second that. As little as is known about ASDs today I shudder to think how it would be had my son been born in the 50's. He probably would just been labeled "slow" or "retarded" and just shunted somewhere to keep him busy until the school district could get rid of him. As for Thimerisol/Mercury in vaccines well, the timing of Andrew's speech loss does roughly match up with his being given the MMR vaccine but I'm not totally convinced. There are a lot of shady people out there pushing "alternative" cures and whatnot and most have to do with heavy metal removal (chelation etc...) that can be dangerous to children so I'm leery of too much emphasis on Mercury as a/the cause.
posted by MikeMc at 7:13 PM on August 13, 2006

"I personally think that the diagnosis is just better than before."

Or perhaps we are just medicating difference?
posted by R. Mutt at 7:29 PM on August 13, 2006

I'm not good at finding definitive information like this, but it was my understanding that mercury as a preservative for vaccines had been pretty steadily phased out over the last half decade or so, and the autism 'epidemic' seems to continue to ramp up.

Would this not be pretty definitive proof that the mercury/autism link is bunk?

Can anyone find some reliable primary sources so we can evaluate?
posted by PissOnYourParade at 7:30 PM on August 13, 2006

mercury as a preservative for vaccines

May very well have had an effect on what happened to me and many, many people all over since at least 1960 (or before or after).

Would you suck down a shot of mercury on a dare? Would you put your own child up to such a challenge?
posted by mk1gti at 7:35 PM on August 13, 2006

Glass ampules are containers for vaccines

May very well have had an effect on what happened to me and many, many people all over since at least 1960 (or before or after).

Would you suck down a shot of crushed glass on a dare? Would you put your own child up to such a challenge?
posted by peeedro at 7:59 PM on August 13, 2006

Autism and extreme male brain theory. What's sex got to do with autism.

The mission of the ARC is to understand the biomedical causes of autism spectrum conditions, and develop new and validated methods for assessment and intervention.
posted by nickyskye at 8:06 PM on August 13, 2006

Mercury was a big concern for me when my son was old enough to be vaccinated. While the barrage of vaccines required for teeny babies are no longer made with mercury, there are still millions of doses of vaccine out there that do contain mercury.

I'm willing to grant that this may have been a tinfoil hat move...but I had the pediatrician special order my son's vaccines to assure that thimerosal was not the preservative.

I felt strongly about this issue *before* my son was born, I assure you I was adamant once he popped out into the universe.

Is it possible I spent a whole lot of money for no good reason? Yes. Is it even slightly possible that I protected my son from a heavy metal? Yes. Then it was worth it.
posted by dejah420 at 8:12 PM on August 13, 2006

Assburgers, Technology. Where's SDB? Certainly he has something to say about this. And what rotten luck I have--I was born near a toxic waste site and I'm not remotely geeky. I'm not even lucratively employed in the technology sector. Who can I sue?
posted by octobersurprise at 8:20 PM on August 13, 2006

I've been following some autism sites - the kind where autistic people discuss autism rationally, carefully and logically debunk various myths about autism and its causes and cures, and are totally stymied by NT (neurotypical) parents' refusal to be moved by anything but what they call "hysteria" - and some day I might make a post about my thoughts.

But for now I'm just going to link to a site created by an autistic woman. It will probably confuse you.


If you are pressed for time and don't want to slog through the whole thing, I understand; so let me just suggest that you click through to, say, the tenth page before quitting so as not to miss the point. This might warrant an FPP, but I thought it was appropriate here as well.
posted by kika at 8:21 PM on August 13, 2006

geekdom is not a recent phenomenom. it has been around forever. i suspect we're just better at diagnostics.
posted by brandz at 8:30 PM on August 13, 2006

speaking of diagnostics:The Autism Spectrum Quotient
posted by hortense at 9:25 PM on August 13, 2006

Can anyone find some reliable primary sources so we can evaluate?

A brief scan of PubMed on "autism mercury" is interesting.

Seems that autistic kids have statistically significant, higher levels of heavy metals in their hair, including mercury. Some treatments of autism use metal detoxification therapy to reduce the severity of symptoms.

This could mean heavy metals are causal for disease expression. Or it could mean that whatever genetic component that might instead be directly responsible for autism also reduces the ability of the body to properly filter heavy metals from the bloodstream.

Another recent study suggests steroid use — specifically testosterone — as a therapy for autistic symptoms. This, to me, plays well into the "extreme male" brain theory that nickyskye refers to up here.

As an interesting aside, the proponent of the "extreme male" theory is Simon Baron-Cohen, brother of Sascha "Ali G" Baron-Cohen.

Clearly this is a complex issue. While we quibble and take sides, it might be fun to take this test and report back your scores (34).
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:49 PM on August 13, 2006

posted by jamjam at 10:16 PM on August 13, 2006

posted by hortense at 10:37 PM on August 13, 2006

39. Should I wander off to a cave now?
posted by mk1gti at 10:37 PM on August 13, 2006

15. How did you all score so high? I feel left out of the autism party.... oh wait....
posted by rmless at 11:19 PM on August 13, 2006

Another big factor in the Asperger's phenomenon is that 'geeks' think it's a cool thing to have, and self-diagnose at the drop of a hat.

Especially the slashdot/digg/boingboing crowd of people who desperately want to belong to some sort of geek culture, constantly grasping at inanity and holding it up as something to be a part of.
posted by blasdelf at 11:19 PM on August 13, 2006

32. I've often wondered about Asperger's and myself. I was able to finish college and I now have a job in the food service industry. I have a large social circle, but I'm mainly viewed as rather eccentric and have an inability to read people or understand their motives (and say, capable of an irrational mood swing that can last for days if I am unable to participate in my daily routine, or if we change a policy at work from what I was previously taught; my aversion to being touching/being touched; my obsessive personality, and so on). As an adult, I've been reluctant to discuss ASD with my doctors because I always assumed my symptoms to be a part of my other diagnoses, and if all of my symptoms were due to Aspeger's, wouldn't they have determined it before I hit the age that I am now (early 20's)?
posted by sara is disenchanted at 11:30 PM on August 13, 2006

17. My mind is boggling at the idea of people who feel ostracized by geek culture. Is the barrier to entry really that high?
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:35 PM on August 13, 2006

You have no idea what an impact that article had on my family......thank you.

Gminks, thank *you*.

Some thoughts:

1. We are medicating difference -- see Ritalin and overdiagnosis of ADD in active children -- but that is not what's going on with autism, by and large. Anyone who has seen a bunch of autistic people knows that they are not merely eccentric in random ways. Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are spectrum disorders, with varying degrees of intensity shading off into normality, but they also have a distinctive behavioral "signature" that suggests not mere geekitude.

2. People closer to affected populations tell me that what is happening does look like a true rise in incidence, with all the caveats in my original article still applied. Some large portion of the apparent rise in autism is undoubtedly caused by increased public awareness of autism and changing diagnostic criteria, but as recenty as a couple of months ago, a researcher for the state of Calfornia who has studied this very question told me that she believes there is a true rise in autism incidence.

3. Autism appears to be rising everywhere, but more rapidly in high-tech communities such as Silicon Valley and similar communities in Boston, Scandanavian countries, and so on. I believe that one of the factors contributing to a rise in autism is that people carrying genes for autism are reproducing at a higher rate than in previous generations -- as explained in depth in my article.

4. I believe that people carrying these genes are drawn to working in technology, IT, and information science because of certain cognitive advantages that the genes convey when present in limited quantities, or with limited expression. (No one knows yet how many genes are responsible for autism, or if genes can be triggered by factors in the environment, such as pollution, mercury in vaccines, etc.) These cognitive advantages include image-based thinking, photographic recall, and a natural inclination toward huge bodies of patterned data (a la the train schedules that autistic people in previous generations would memorize).

5. I believe that most people who carry these genes are well within the glorious patchwork of behavior that we call normal.

6. I believe that this phenomenon of "assortative mating" is only one of the factors contributing to a rise in autism, and only in tech-centric communities. Other factors must be in play -- including possibly environmental triggers -- in other communities.

7. It is easy to believe that we are simply medicalizing difference, or that the pharmaceutical industry is covering up a huge scandal in re: vaccines -- and certainly has behaved as if it was doing so -- but I don't believe that either of these factors are sufficient to account for the rising incidence.

8. Some people say that parents who obtain a diagnosis of autism for their kids are simply subscribing to the "fad of the month." It's safe to say that these people have little or no experience with autistic kids and their parents.

9. I think that autism, like homosexuality, will ultimately teach us that the range of human behaviors that contribute to the overall health of the gene pool is much wider than we thought. Viva neurodiversity!
posted by digaman at 11:53 PM on August 13, 2006

digaman, I'd like to know your opinion on the trend of kids (especially forum denizens) thinking Aspergers sounds cool and self-diagnosing to excuse their definitely-not-autistic behavior, especially after your article came out.

I know I did that when I first read your article years ago, I've watched several other people do the same thing , and I see it all over the place (especially on lesser internet forums) anytime the subject comes up. What are your thoughts on the perceived coolness of Aspergers among adolescents?
posted by blasdelf at 12:52 AM on August 14, 2006

11. You people are freaks.

(I kid! I keeeed!)
posted by scrump at 12:57 AM on August 14, 2006

As a geek and someone who has grown up in the new, psychopharmicutical nuclear family, I am not suprised by the Autism scare. I've read that they are able to diagnose it more, and just like ADD (which iI was diagnosed with and treated for) it removes guilt or fear from the parents in terms of them doing something wrong. Give two people with possibly insecurity in dealing with extreme emotions (emotional confrontation, anger, shame, love, aka geek introverts) the responsibility of raising a child and also factor in their general problem solving skills and belief that there exists an answer to their problem, and you have a couple who are obsessed about the mental health of their child, who themselves don't know how to cope with telling their kid no, or even themselves knowing how to deal with it when someone tells them no.

I've noticed this in my friends, who are children of professors and programmers, in myself, whose mother was a programmer, and in peers who are now just having kids and don't know how to deal with it.

There are environmental factors and health issues, there are things put in the air in the last 20 years that have never existed on this planet before, but we can't discount the human factor entirely.
posted by mrzarquon at 1:02 AM on August 14, 2006

From the test:

I would rather go to the theater than to a museum.

Well it depends on the movie playing, right? Although I suppose if you didn't have a preference, the answer would be that you disagree with the statement.
posted by delmoi at 1:54 AM on August 14, 2006

I scored 12 on the test. There were a lot of questions dealing with imagination, visualization, that sort of thing - and the scoring guide at the bottom indicates that people who answer those questions in a way that indicates a good imagination score lower.

Is it hard for autistic people to imagine and visualize?
posted by delmoi at 1:59 AM on August 14, 2006

I wonder if it has anything to do with the pregnant mother being around computers on a daily basis.
posted by livinginmonrovia at 2:23 AM on August 14, 2006

We are medicating difference.

"There's nothing wrong with her. She's a dancer."
posted by missbossy at 2:30 AM on August 14, 2006

Thanks for the link, kika. Great site!
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 2:34 AM on August 14, 2006

38. And an Alsperger breeder with a 33% success rate.
posted by hal9k at 3:34 AM on August 14, 2006

Think of a corrupt government who could attempt to engineer a workforce high in various types of autism, in the hopes of building an outsourced-software industry...

I had a good chuckle at this. Government doesn't think beyond the next election cycle, and industry can't be arsed about anything further out than next year's annual report. I'd almost welcome a good long-range conpiracy theory about eugenics=based Duty Now For The Future.
posted by pax digita at 4:21 AM on August 14, 2006

Actively seeking out a diagnosis is a valid factor, but not necessarily for the reasons that have been mentioned. Often parents will strive to get different opinions from the medical community, and for children that are on the mild end of the spectrum, there may be a range of diagnoses. Think about it -- if your child has been diagnosed with Asperger's from one doctor, but another thinks it is only a mild pervasive developmental disorder -- and a diagnosis gives you the help, support and state money that you need -- which way would you go?
posted by drinkcoffee at 4:33 AM on August 14, 2006

Autism has a significantly higher probability of occuring in children born to older (28+) mothers. Concentration of educated, high achieving women in silicon is a sufficient condition for higher than average number of such cases. No?
posted by trol at 4:44 AM on August 14, 2006

There's a reason Silicon Valley's major newspaper is called The San Jose Mercury News. Nearby New Almaden Quicksilver Mine used to be the most productive mercury mine in the United States. In the 1970s, Santa Clara County purchased the mine, leading to the creation of Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
posted by ryanrs at 5:49 AM on August 14, 2006


posted by unixrat at 6:34 AM on August 14, 2006

ok, I got a 38 on that test, and I'm definitely not autistic. I'm a grad student, so I'm like, on the intellectual side, but basically, any answers on that quiz were completely normal behaviors. Whether you prefer museums or theatres, or how well you play with children, or whether you have single-minded concentration, or read people easily, or any of the other things there were always considered personality traits, not diseases, syndromes or disorders. Making up these diagnostic criteria only encourages people to self segregate and even congratulate themselves for shortcomings.

It's a good thing that we recognize the diversity of human personalities, and understand that different behavior is not always willed or purposefully chosen to annoy you - but it's also important not to imagine these categories as absolute boundaries, not to think that a certain "type" is 'who you are' as opposed to a simplistic stereotype of what someone with certain symptoms must be. Two people could have the exact same score while answering different questions "autistically", or they could answer the same way for totally different reasons...
posted by mdn at 7:13 AM on August 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

17. An interesting discussion here, and I too look forward to digaman's additional thoughts tomorrow.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:26 AM on August 14, 2006

trol, I was 20 when I had my daughter. However, they took out my appendix when I was 6 months pregnant with her, and I had a massive kidney infection and passed 2 kidney stones when I was 8 months pregnant with her (MUCH worse pain than the actual childbirth!!!).

I think there is some school of thought that says things that happen pre-natal can trigger that gene. I have a son that is "nuero-typical"*, and that pregnancy was 100% uneventful and normal.

By "nuero-typical" I mean we had him tested after my daughter and he doesn't have asperger's. Although I struggle calling a teenager who dresses in superhero suits for movie premiers "nuero-typical"....I mean, what is typical and who wants to be around "normal" people anyways?
posted by gminks at 7:30 AM on August 14, 2006

The Getting The Truth out site was amazing. Thanks for sharing that.

As to the test linked by Blazecock Pileon: I got a 10. I think if there's a polar opposite to autism, I may be it. ;)
posted by dejah420 at 7:34 AM on August 14, 2006

Great links, thank you.
posted by agregoli at 8:48 AM on August 14, 2006

The idea that Silicon Valley is inundated with toxins and sinister magnetic fields makes for a compelling narrative for the cause of autism -- so compelling that it comes up in every online discussion of this issue. And yet, despite the earnest efforts of medical authorities, the parents of autistic kids, and advocates like Bernard Rimland for the last couple of decades to find an environmental smoking gun for autism, one has not yet been found. (Mercury in vaccines has not yet been definitively ruled out, but the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal was removed from vaccines several years ago, so we should be expecting to see a plunge in the rates of autism among kids -- and it still seems to be rising.)

Since my article has come out, numerous people on the front lines of the disorder in high-tech communities -- everyone from therapists to researchers to children's dentists -- have contacted me to tell me that they have observed a high level of mildly autistic behaviors in the parents of many autistic kids. This suggests that a genetic factor may be playing a significant role in elevated autism rates in those communities. While this is anecdotal, it's also compelling, and seems logical, given the numerous studies that suggest that most cases of autism have a genetic basis. Note: As I say in my story, this does not rule out an environmental factor -- kids who inherit a big dose of genes that contribute to autism may be left more vulnerable to an environmental trigger that is still unknown.

The science of autism is still suffering from a hangover; for nearly 20 years, it was launched in the wrong direction by a famous psychiatrist named Bruno Bettelheim, who hypothesized in his bestselling book The Empty Fortress that autism was caused by "refrigerator mothers" -- parents who did not want their kids to exist. Because of his theory, which was based on fraudulent case histories, many autistic people were removed from their homes and institutionalized for the rest of their lives. This also caused great shame among the parents of autistic kids, which was a human tragedy on a vast scale.

At the same time, the refutation of Bettelheim has made people even more eager to embrace conspiracy theories that pin the cause of autism on pollution or Big Pharma. If it's not the parents' "fault," it must be the fault of modern life or a sinister pharmaceutical cabal. Yet the research continues to suggest that most autistic kids are born that way, and that many of them have family members who demonstrate the personality traits of what is known as "the broad autistic phenotype" -- i.e., people who are still within the normal range, but slightly autistic. Now that I've met a ton of these people, I can tell you: they're not just "weird" or "cool" or "anti-social" or "geeky." There's a cluster of both social impairments and cognitive enhancements that is quite distinctive once you've seen a lot of it.

I worry that the geek-syndrome hypothesis may be misapplied or may mask other possible reasons for a rise in incidence in non-techie communities. I do not at all see the hypothesis as contrary to the search for an environmental trigger.

But my hope is that the study of autism, and the discovery of what really causes it, leads us to a greater appreciation of the different ways of being human.
posted by digaman at 9:09 AM on August 14, 2006

Milkman Dan, thanks for these links and this discussion. To channel my inner geek for a moment, could you please tweak the "asperger" tag to spell it correctly? It might help people find this later. Thanks!
posted by digaman at 9:31 AM on August 14, 2006

Race & autism - any correlation? Were these folks transplants to the Silicon Valley or did they grow up here? We have a very diverse population down here (large Latino population, large Korean population, many Chines & Indian folks, etc) - I'd be curious to see if the autism rates were the same across the races down here.

I knew a behaviorial psychologist here in the Valley a couple years ago. She dealt with autistic children, and I do recall her saying "And to think, some folks refuse to believe that it's genetic." Some of her patients were in the same family - 3 of 5 kids in one family being diagnosed as autistic.

It was interesting, to say the least.
posted by drstein at 9:48 AM on August 14, 2006

Other than some whisperings about autism being more prevalent among Jews -- not yet studied, as far as I know -- I haven't heard anything about race and autism, just FYI.
posted by digaman at 9:50 AM on August 14, 2006

digaman, I'd like to know your opinion on the trend of kids (especially forum denizens) thinking Aspergers sounds cool and self-diagnosing to excuse their definitely-not-autistic behavior, especially after your article came out.

I know I did that when I first read your article years ago, I've watched several other people do the same thing , and I see it all over the place (especially on lesser internet forums) anytime the subject comes up. What are your thoughts on the perceived coolness of Aspergers among adolescents?

Well, I dunno. I haven't seen all that much of kids "excus[ing] their definitely-not-autistic behavior" by taking on an AS diagnosis. But I know what you mean.

Heck, geeky kids related to Data on Star Trek: TNG a long time before Asperger's became "cool," if you can even say that (there are a lot of definitely-not-cool things associated with having AS too). And a lot of people who are definitely autistic related to Data as well. I think this is a goofy offshoot of people realizing that there are a lot of ways of being effective and smart as a human being that shade off into slightly-autistic behavior.
posted by digaman at 10:05 AM on August 14, 2006

Hmmm. I scored a 20 on that test, which surprised me, a little. I always just thought I was an introvert/literary geek with some standard-issue social insecurities.

And thanks for your comments here, digaman.
posted by jokeefe at 10:21 AM on August 14, 2006

12. But I changed me as I grew up. It'd be higher 10 years ago.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:24 AM on August 14, 2006

42. I'm not a retard, though. I just don't like people or chatter very much. Liking things slow and quiet doesn't need to be pathologized.
posted by pieoverdone at 12:05 PM on August 14, 2006

No, it doesn't. But this is something else, excerpted from my article:

Autism's insidious style of onset is particularly cruel to parents, because for the first two years of life, nothing seems to be wrong. Their child is engaged with the world, progressing normally, taking first steps into language. Then, suddenly, some unknown cascade of neurological events washes it all away.

One father of an autistic child, Jonathan Shestack, describes what happened to his son, Dov, as "watching our sweet, beautiful boy disappear in front of our eyes." At two, Dov's first words - Mom, Dad, flower, park - abruptly retreated into silence. Over the next six months, Dov ceased to recognize his own name and the faces of his parents. It took Dov a year of intensive behavioral therapy to learn how to point. At age 9, after the most effective interventions available (such as the step-by-step behavioral training methods developed by Ivar Lovaas at UCLA), Dov can speak 20 words.

posted by digaman at 12:18 PM on August 14, 2006

"watching our sweet, beautiful boy disappear in front of our eyes."

"At two, Dov's first words - Mom, Dad, flower, park - abruptly retreated into silence."

That's the worst part. My son's case is similar, he would say basic words like "cup" and "cookie" and seemed to be reaching all of the developmental benchmarks within the expected time frame and then it just stopped. He went from simple age appropriate words to nothing, not a single word, just apparently random noises. Has been getting speech therapy for about 2 years now (at school and a private therapist) along with other therapies and he is just now starting to string together 2 and occasionally 3 word combinations but his vocabulary is roughly a couple dozen words (mostly names). We are on a waiting list for ABA (Lovaas) therapy and hoping for the best. It's just soooo damn frustrating, sometimes you're convinced that there's a pent-up mass of ability there and that someday you'll figure out how to unlock it and everything will come flooding out. Other times the idea of ever having an actual conversation with him seems like a pipe dream. I understand why parents are desperate for something concrete to pin this on, if you have a cause you can have a cure.
posted by MikeMc at 1:02 PM on August 14, 2006

Best of luck, MikeMc. I really feel for you and your family.
posted by digaman at 1:04 PM on August 14, 2006

Thanks digaman, we're just taking it day by day and hoping for the best.
posted by MikeMc at 1:13 PM on August 14, 2006

6. Suck it, y'all!
posted by myeviltwin at 6:59 AM on August 15, 2006

Heh, I'm pretending to work by reading MeFi so I can avoid going downstairs for the end-of-summer picnic at my newish job. So I take the linked test and score a 32. Like that was a surprise...
posted by Fezboy! at 9:59 AM on August 15, 2006

Last week's cover story in Atlanta's Creative Loafing (alternative weekly) was about autism. It's not nearly as exhaustive as digaman's Wired piece (nice job!), or even this thread, but it does shed light on the local angle for those of us in metro Atlanta. Atlanta's northern suburbs are somewhat of a high tech corridor (less so over the years though as poor governing sets in) and autism is definitely climbing here. There's been recent news of protests at the CDC or at health meetings hosted here, and the article mentions Emory's Autism Center and The Marcus Institute.
posted by intermod at 1:53 PM on August 15, 2006

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