The Geek Syndrome and Autism: Revisited
The “Geek Syndrome” is a theory for the rising number of autism diagnoses that doesn’t have anything to do with vaccines or environmental factors. About a decade ago, Wired magazine suggested that the notable increase in autism cases among the computer programmers and engineers in Silicon Valley was because those who inhabit those “geek warrens” have a “genetic predisposition” for autism. Now, under Rosa Hoekstra of the Open University in Milton Keynes in the UK, researchers have found that in Eindhoven, a city that is the heart of the Dutch information technology industry, autism is diagnosed in twice as many children as in cities of the same size.
In the Wired article, Cambridge University psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen described the autistic mind as having a “proclivity for systematizing” while, due to the lack of a theory of mind, autistic persons are “mindblind” and lack empathy. Baron-Cohen would go on to write a book promoting a theory of autism as an example of the “extreme male brain,” saying that the male brain is “systematizing” while the female one is “empathizing.” These theories are well-known but controversial (and his most recent book on empathy and the problem of evil contains some troubling theorizing about autism)
Hoekstra’s study, which was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, looked at the autism prevalence in 62,000 children in three Dutch cities. Eindhoven, Haarlem and Utrecht all have populations of about a quarter of a million; only Eindhoven has a heavy concentration of IT workers. As noted in New Scientist:
In Eindhoven, where 30 per cent of all jobs are in IT and computing industries, there were 229 cases of autism-spectrum disorders per 10,000 school-age children. This was more than double the corresponding figure of 84 in Haarlem and four times the figure of 57 in Utrecht. Each city has half as many IT jobs as Eindhoven.
By contrast, all three cities had the same prevalence of two other childhood psychiatric conditions unrelated to autism, namely attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and dyspraxia.
Hoekstra notes that other reasons for the higher prevalence rate in Eindhoven could be greater awareness and the availability of better services. It’s been almost ten years since the Wired article on “the Geek Syndrome” was published and autism has certainly gotten a lot of attention in the public eye.
Some of Baron-Cohen’s earlier research found that fathers and grandfathers of children with autism are more likely to be engineers and scientists, and that mathematicians are more likely to have siblings on the autism spectrum. Other studies in the UK, Japan and the Netherlands have found a higher than usual rate of autistic traits among engineering, science and mathematics students.
In my own household, the gender aspects of Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory are reversed. I count several engineers (including my mother’s father, a civil engineer who was a bridge inspector for the state of California), computer programmers and IT types. There’s nary an engineer (or any one in the science or medical fields) in my husband’s family. Indeed, Jim tends to be more of what Baron-Cohen would call “empathetic,” with an intuitive feel for people’s (certainly Charlie’s) moods and states of mind. I’m no scientist myself, but definitely have “systematizing” tendencies, which helped me learn the complex grammar of ancient languages and music like Bach’s fugues (whereas, if Jim hadn’t become a historian, he had thoughts of being a courtroom lawyer, a profession that everyone in my family shies away from). I’ve often thought that if things had turned out differently, and I hadn’t discovered Latin and Greek in middle school, I could have been a coder. Charlie himself is quite the systematizer.
I’ve also wrote a bit more extensively about Charlie himself and Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory of autism here and his theory of autism and mind-blindness here, with the caveat that these are theories that many do not agree with. Still, I find them helpful as we continue to try to understand why Charlie does what he does: He doesn’t just make arrangements like the one below without a lot of thought and care.
Photo by Phillie Casablanca.