A new study from Cambridge University has for the first time found that autism diagnoses are more common in an IT-rich region. The study has important implications for service provision in different regions and for the 'hyper-systemising' theory of autism.
Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, led the study with Rosa Hoekstra, a Dutch autism researcher.
The researchers predicted that autism spectrum conditions (ASC) would be more common in populations enriched for 'systemising', which is the drive to analyse how systems work, and to predict, control and build systems. These skills are required in disciplines such as engineering, physics, computing and mathematics.
The team had previously discovered evidence for a familial association between a talent for systemising and autism in that fathers and grandfathers of children with ASC are over-represented in the field of engineering. The team had also previously found that mathematicians more often have a sibling with ASC, and students in the natural and technological sciences, including mathematics, show a higher number of autistic traits.
The researchers tested for differences in the prevalence of ASC in school-aged children in three geographical regions in the Netherlands: Eindhoven, Haarlem, and Utrecht-city. The region Eindhoven was selected because it is rich in information-technology (IT) having the Eindhoven University of Technology there, as well as the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, where IT and technology companies are based.
The two control regions were selected because they have similar size populations and a similar socioeconomic class. Schools in each region were asked to provide the number of children enrolled, the number having a clinical diagnosis of ASC and/or two control neurodevelopmental conditions (dyspraxia and ADHD). The participating schools in the three regions provided diagnostic information on a total of 62,505 children. The researchers found school-reported prevalence estimates of ASC in Eindhoven was 229 per 10,000, significantly higher than in Haarlem (84 per 10,000) and Utrecht (57 per 10,000), whilst the prevalence for the control conditions were similar in all regions.
Simon Baron-Cohen commented: "These results are in line with the idea that in regions where parents gravitate towards jobs that involve strong 'systemising', such as the IT sector, there will be a higher rate of autism among their children, because the genes for autism may be expressed in first degree relatives as a talent in systemising. The results also have implications for explaining how genes for autism may have persisted in the population gene pool, as some of these genes appear linked to adaptive, advantageous traits."
Rosa Hoekstra added: "We need to conduct a follow-up study to validate the diagnoses and to test the alternative explanations for the elevated rate of autism in Eindhoven, including the possibility that children with autism may more often remain undetected in the two other regions. In our follow-up study we plan to study the causes of this variation in more detail. This will help local authorities plan services appropriately for the number of children with autism."
REHACARE.de; Source: University of Cambridge