Why are there more people with autism in Silicon Valley?

Major Mental Illnesses Read more from
Chapter Abnormal Psychology: Mental Health and Mental Illness

According to a 2001 article in Wired magazine by Steve Silberman, there has been a significant increase in autism diagnoses nationwide. It is unclear how much this is due to better diagnoses or actual changes in the incidence of the disorder, possibly caused by environmental toxins. In a 2002 report to the California legislature, the M.I.N.D. Institute referenced a 273 percent increase in autism diagnoses in California from 1987 to 1998, which they suggest was not due to changes in diagnostic practices. Moreover, Silberman reported an even larger spike in autism and Asperger’s diagnoses in Silicon Valley, as well as other technology-heavy areas.

One explanation for this involves the concept of assortative mating, first proposed by the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. People with Asperger’s or autism traits (otherwise known as autistic spectrum traits) are known to be talented in the kind of logical and analytic thinking integral to computer science. Likewise, an elevated rate of autistic spectrum disorders has been found among the relatives of professionals or students in physics, mathematics, and engineering. Consequently, the huge expansion of the technology industry in the 1980s set the stage for much larger concentrations of people with autistic spectrum features than had existed previously. In this way, men and women with similar genes could come together, marry, and have children. Such parents passed their combined genes onto the next generation, increasing the concentration of autism spectrum genes.


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