May 16, 2014 7:04 pm

Science: Autism makes a happier Silicon Valley

People with Asperger’s can often become fixated on one thing – and this, together with a high IQ, can be a recipe for financial gain
Brain scans of a six-year-old boy are examined as part of a study to better understand autism in children©AP

Brain scans of a six-year-old boy are examined as part of a study to better understand autism in children

Here are some of the most expensive postcodes in the United States: 94027, 94022, 94920 and 94028. All are exclusive residential enclaves favoured by the Silicon Valley set – those who have made fortunes thanks to the tech boom, and are willing to fork out more than $1m for a two-bedroom bungalow.

But according to Temple Grandin, an animal scientist at Colorado State University, these gilded neighbourhoods may also harbour some of the highest rates of autism in the country. Grandin is calling for the talents of autistic children to be identified and nurtured. In her new book, The Autistic Brain, she says that Silicon Valley is stuffed full of “Happy Aspies”– people with Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning type of autism sometimes associated with above-average intelligence – who have shied away from being labelled and, instead, have successfully cultivated their tech obsessions.

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Grandin, who is autistic herself, believes that “Steve Jobs was probably on the spectrum” and that many other top Valley companies are led by “geeky guys” who may not have received (or revealed) an official diagnosis but whose condition shines through in interviews. These individuals, she implies, have simply learnt to monetise their condition.

About 1 per cent of us are on the autism spectrum, with symptoms that include language delay, difficulty with social interactions and a narrow, repetitive range of interests (for example, ordering objects obsessively). Those with Asperger’s can often become fixated on one thing – and combining this with a high IQ can be a recipe for financial gain. After all, Silicon Valley is a meritocratic haven where social graces don’t matter as long as your computer coding rocks.

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Grandin’s book offers three templates for how humans think. In addition to the usual verbal and visual (or picture) thinking, she adds a third category: pattern thinking. Science, maths, engineering and finance are textbook pattern thinking professions – carried out by people who are often popularly portrayed as socially unaware, despite dazzling IQs.

If anyone can resuscitate the idea of autistic savants, it’s probably Grandin, who attributes her superb visual memory – and her career – to her autism. Now in her sixties, she has written extensively about her own struggles: she didn’t speak until the age of four but found she could relate intuitively to animals. The story of her life was turned into a film, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes.

The trick, she says, is not to focus on what an autistic person can’t do, but instead on what they can do.

. . .

When it comes to nutrition, mum’s the word

You are what your mother ate. That is one striking interpretation of a new study conducted by the UK’s Medical Research Council. The report offers the first direct evidence that nutrition in pregnancy can have effects on a child’s life-long health. Its findings, which were published in the journal Nature Communications, will cheer supporters of epigenetics, the once-derided notion that the environment endured by one generation can leave its imprint in the genome of successive generations.

The study exploited the markedly seasonal climate in rural Gambia, where people eat notably different diets during the rainy and dry seasons. Researchers enrolled 84 women who conceived between July and September, the peak of the rainy season known as “hunger season”; and 83 women who conceived between February and April, a time of harvest.

The academics found that rainy-season mums and babies had higher rates of certain nutrients, including vitamin B2 and folate, in their blood. This discrepancy appeared to be reflected in the infants’ DNA: compared with dry-season babies, rainy-season newborns had higher rates of particular chemical compounds called methyl groups. These have the power to “silence”, or switch off, genes.

Branwen Hennig, one of the team’s researchers, hailed the study as “the first demonstration in humans that a mother’s nutritional well-being at the time of conception can change how her child’s genes will be interpreted, with a life-long impact”.

It’s unknown yet whether the silencing of the six genes under study is beneficial or damaging: untangling the consequences for health is the next goal.

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