June 17, 2013
Have a look at your Facebook feed and note how many Autism awareness ribbons, messages and articles pop up. How could it be that so many of your smart, geeky, delightfully frank friends have children with autism or Asperger's?
It may be as simple as heredity. Being ridiculously smart, geeky, frank and all the other things that make for such a quirky and interesting friend also happen to be traits associated with Asperger's. The intelligence and focus that are often associated with this milder cousin of Autism also serve quite nicely in fields like engineering, science and computer programming.
As women have entered these fields in greater numbers, autism clusters are appearing in high tech hot spots. Explains Wired writer Steve Silberman in “The Geek Syndrome”: “In these places, if you're a geek living in the high-functioning regions of the spectrum, your chances of meeting someone who shares your perseverating obsession (think Linux or Star Trek) are greatly expanded. As more women enter the IT workplace, guys who might never have had a prayer of finding a kindred spirit suddenly discover that she's hacking Perl scripts in the next cubicle.”
Autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, yes,cousin to Sasha Baron-Cohen, but back to the science stuff) is hot on the trail of a theory of Assortative Mating, that is, the idea that scientifically-minded, tech-savvy people marrying each other may increase the chance of autism in their children.
At this point it's still just a theory, but Professor Baron-Cohen points to his study in Eindhoven, the Silicon Valley of the Netherlands. “It showed compelling evidence for the link between autism in children and scientific talent in their parents. Rates of autism in that IT hub were more than twice as high as two comparison cities in the Netherlands,” he told DAME. Baron-Cohen is still gathering evidence and invites college graduate parents (whether of autistic children or not) to take this web survey.
For people who live and work in tech centers, the anecdotal evidence seems pretty clear. Kyra Kramer, part of an “Aspie” couple, and the writer of the exquisitely-researched (natch) “Blood Will Tell” told DAME, “Frankly, he (her husband, a software engineer) and his fellow geeks are actively looking for someone in their department who DOESN'T fit the criteria for Autism!” The Kramer's brood includes a daughter with Asperger's, one with OCD and one too young to call.
If the Assortative Mating theory proves to be true, it raises all sorts of interesting questions about our future, both virtual and terrestrial: How will schools in tech centers change to accommodate rising numbers of kids on the Autism spectrum? What happens when major decisions on issues like computer users' privacy are largely made by a group characterized as lacking empathy? Are we inadvertently breeding out certain personality traits that might be kinda useful in non-tech aspects of life?
Kramer doesn't seem too worried, “We call Muggles 'The Normals' in our house. As in, 'Lana you shouldn't do that because The Normals are confused by it,'” she said, stressing that she is joking. (“Muggles are touchy,” she explains.)
“Frankly, I am convinced that my egghead and I are breeding superior life forms (Homo Geekiest).”