Autism spectrum conditions are more prevalent in areas that are heavily involved with the information technology industry, according to a new study done at the University of Cambridge. Based on data drawn from three regions in the Netherlands, researchers found that an area with a technology-oriented university and tech-business campus saw two to four times the incidences of autism in schoolchildren as control regions, leading the authors to suggest that autism-related genes may express themselves in first-degree relatives as a talent for system-oriented thinking.

The region of Eindhoven in the Netherlands is home to the Eindhoven University of Technology, as well as the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, which houses offices for companies like Philips and IBM. Over 30 percent of jobs in Eindhoven are in IT and technology. That contrasts with more typical regions like Haarlem and Utrecht, where 16 and 17 percent of jobs are in that field, respectively.

The Cambridge researchers pulled statistics from the schools in each of the three areas to determine the proportion of children who have autism-spectrum conditions (ASC). Of the 62,505 children in their data set, they found 229 incidences of ASC per 10,000 children in IT-rich Eindhoven. By comparison, Haarlem had 84 incidences per 10,000, and Utrecht had only 57 per 10,000.

Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the researchers and director of Cambridge's Autism Research Centre, proposes that regions where parents gravitate toward jobs involving "systemizing," like IT, have a higher rate of autism because the genes for autism are expressed "as a talent in systemizing" in first-degree relatives. Baron-Cohen goes on to say that the results may explain why autism genes have persisted in the gene pool: they are linked to "adaptive, advantageous traits."

The authors caution that there may simply be more awareness of autism in the IT-industry region, and they plan to verify the diagnoses as well as test other possible explanations for the variance in ASC rates.

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2011. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-011-1302-1  (About DOIs).

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