Rates of both classic autism and Asperger's syndrome are going up all over the world, which is certainly cause for alarm and for the urgent mobilization of research. Autism was once considered a very rare disorder, occurring in one out of every 10,000 births. Now it's understood to be much more common - perhaps 20 times more. But according to local authorities, the picture in California is particularly bleak in Santa Clara County... Though no one has tried to convince the Valley's best and brightest to sign up for batteries of tests, the culture of the area has subtly evolved to meet the social needs of adults in high-functioning regions of the spectrum. In the geek warrens of engineering and R&D, social graces are beside the point. You can be as off-the-wall as you want to be, but if your code is bulletproof, no one's going to point out that you've been wearing the same shirt for two weeks. Autistic people have a hard time multitasking - particularly when one of the channels is face-to-face communication. Replacing the hubbub of the traditional office with a screen and an email address inserts a controllable interface between a programmer and the chaos of everyday life. Flattened workplace hierarchies are more comfortable for those who find it hard to read social cues. A WYSIWYG world, where respect and rewards are based strictly on merit, is an Asperger's dream. Obviously, this kind of accommodation is not unique to the Valley. The halls of academe have long been a forgiving environment for absentminded professors. Temple Grandin - the inspiring and accomplished autistic woman profiled in Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars - calls NASA the largest sheltered workshop in the world. ... The chilling possibility is that what's happening now is the first proof that the genes responsible for bestowing certain special gifts on slightly autistic adults - the very abilities that have made them dreamers and architects of our technological future - are capable of bringing a plague down on the best minds of the next generation.That's a creepy prognosis, so here's hoping that all these brilliant minds can find a way out of it that avoids the pit of eugenic culling, focusing instead on treatment.
Tuesday, August 16, 2005
My friend Ben likes to say that he is a candidate for an Asperger diagnosis and my wife jokingly tells me the same. Your were joking, weren't you, dear? WIRED magazine now has an on line test you can take. The magazine tells us that "the average score in the control group was 16.4. Eighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher." Yours truly came in over the average and under the diagnosis, with a respectable 21. Note that the server seems to be having trouble right this moment and I had to tally my score by hand. The test is part of a fascinating look at WIRED claims is an upsurge in Aspergers and Autism diagnoses in Silicon Valley: