Is autism inherent in IT?

An apparent link between autism and IT workers may seem to confirm the computer-geek cliche, but the truth is more complicated

Levels of autism in children living in areas where many parents are employed by high-tech companies is above national averages according to recent research. But not all experts are convinced by such statistics.

According to a BBC report, the number of recorded cases of autism have soared well above average levels in Silicon Valley in the US and the UK's 'Silicon Fen' around Cambridge over the past 20 years.

But according to David Potter, head of autism policy at the National Autistic Society in the UK, talk of a 'geek gene' over-simplifies the issue.

Potter claims the level of autism reported by the BBC in Silicon Valley - one in 150 children - is actually in keeping with the national average. The issue, he says, is more to do with genes engendering certain 'cognitive skills' and people with those skills, and genes, naturally gravitating towards certain occupations.

Characteristics of autism can include highly advanced mathematical skills, and strong analytical abilities. As such it is natural that people will look for work where those skills can be put to good use.

Over time there is a tendency for 'micro-gene pools' to be created as people with a genetic leaning towards autism begin to gather in particular areas because of the nature of local industries. Inevitably, men and women meet, get together and start families.

Potter confirmed that there is a high instance of fathers with autistic children who work in high-tech and science fields, but he also cited the case of blue collar workers in New Jersey whose children show similar rates of autism.

He said: "What we're talking about are people with a high attention to detail. It certainly doesn't mean all people working in IT are autistic - nor mean their children are prone to it."

People with skills sets specific to autism are just as likely to work on production lines or do machine work in a factory where a predisposition to focus single-mindedly on one task becomes a virtue, he added.

However, Potter said: "We do know people with autism find computers a great way to communicate. The internet is blind. You can use it and it needn't be obvious you have any disability whereas it might be more apparent if speaking tos someone face to face."

There has been a marked increase in the recorded number of people with autism since the late seventies and early eighties - a period in which the technology sector was expanding rapidly, creating high-tech centres such as Silicon Valley.

However, it is far more likely that the levels have not changed but that the diagnosis of the condition has improved.

Until the 1990s people with highly analytical skills and mathematical capabilities, who were fully able to work well in certain industries but perhaps lacked certain social skills, were often labelled as 'geeks'.

IT comes under particular scrutiny because the gender breakdown within the IT industry mirrors that of people with autism. The ratio of men to women with autism is 4-1. For the high functioning variety it is 9-1. Within IT the split of men to women is 7-1. According to Potter in some instances autism has even been tested under the banner of 'extreme male brain theory' - examining the dominance of the practical side of the brain.

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