Scientists baffled at rise in autism

BOB BROCKIE
Last updated 05:00 28/11/2011

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OPINION: When geeks breed they often produce more geeky children.

So thinks Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of psychology at Cambridge University. The professor also worries that geeky couples may have more than their share of autistic offspring. He discovered this after studying a cluster of autistic children born to Silicon Valley parents and another batch at the Dutch technology hub town of Eindhoven.

Some clinicians back the professor's claims. A San Francisco psychologist says: "A lot of geeks don't make great eye contact, all their clothing comes from thrift shops and they don't have a lot of social understanding. When these geeks marry each other, that' s bad news for the offspring."

Most autistic children are a sad problem. Many can't speak, few find work, daily activities are difficult and large numbers depend on their parents into adulthood. But Baron-Cohen finds that even these people may have extraordinary powers. Using a visual acuity and contrast test, the professor tested the sight of 15 autistic people in England and found they all had extremely sharp 20:7, hawk-like vision. Detailed facial features you and I can see seven metres away were visible to these autistic people 20m away. They could read car number plates at the end of the street.

At the other end of the autism spectrum are the so-called idiot savants who can instantly multiply six figures by six figures in their heads, know the value of pi to 10,000 places or, like Stephen Wiltshire, can draw perfectly detailed cityscapes from memory after flying over them in a helicopter. Paradoxically, some of these people can't tie their own shoe laces.

But somewhere along the autism spectrum disorder are people whose autism can be to their advantage. They are adept at spotting recurring patterns in large sets of data and don't forget things.

Danish entrepreneur Dr Thorkil Sonne runs an agency that has hired out more than 170 autistic people to perform nerdish work. He says that his autistic geeks stay focused beyond the point when most minds go numb and make far fewer mistakes. "They have a preternatural capacity for concentration, near-total recall and strong attention to detail, are persistent and good at following structures and routines," he says. "In other words, they're born software engineers."

Since 2000, Dr Sonne's autists have taken jobs with companies such as Microsoft or Cisco ferreting out software errors or keeping track of fibre-optic networks. Inspired by Dr Sonne, similar agencies have sprung up in Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States.

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The number of autistic children has skyrocketed in recent years. The US Centre for Disease Control reports the incidence has jumped from 1:5000 children in 1975 to 1:110 children today. New Zealand has about 40 000 people "on the spectrum".

Older parenting accounts for some of the rise. Changing diagnostic criteria and greater awareness of the condition account for more of the increase but nearly 50 per cent of the rise remains unexplained. A review in this month's Nature science magazine admits that epidemiologists remain baffled.

- The Dominion Post

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