Autism – and its milder cousin Asperger’s syndrome – is surging among the children of Silicon Valley. Are math-and-tech genes to blame?
Though Asperger’s syndrome is less disabling than "low-functioning" forms of autism, kids who have it suffer difficulties in the same areas as classically autistic children do: social interactions, motor skills, sensory processing, and a tendency toward repetitive behavior.
It’s a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics – coming to work early, leaving late, sucking down Big Gulps in their cubicles while they code for hours – are residing somewhere in Asperger’s domain. Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger’s syndrome "the engineers’ disorder." Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov’s father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers "could be diagnosed with ODD – they’re odd." In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, "I think all tech people are slightly autistic."
Programming requires repetitve behaviour, focus on the small details, solitary work, knowledge and notice of patterns and numbers, and geeks are not usually found at social hubs. There is an Autism-Spectrum Quotient test, 50 questions, I came in at 31, Hubby at 33. According to the survey creators, "In the first major trial using the test, 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. The test is not a means for making a diagnosis, however, and many who score above 32 and even meet the diagnostic criteria for mild autism or Asperger’s report no difficulty functioning in their everyday lives."
The science fiction novel This Alien Shore by CS Friedman has an autistic main character. The premise is that the galaxy is populated with humans who were genetically altered by the first faster-than-light drive, resulting in bizarre mutations, and one planet containing every mental disorder under the sun. The autistic character is prized for his focus and programming skill, and has trouble moving outside of his routine.
You thought geeks were a bit odd? You might be right.