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I hear it claimed very often that there is a higher incidence of people with Asperger's Syndrome who work in IT or study computer science (far more so than other fields).

This wired article touches on the claim:

It's a familiar joke in the industry that many of the hardcore programmers in IT strongholds like Intel, Adobe, and Silicon Graphics - coming to work early, leaving late, sucking down Big Gulps in their cubicles while they code for hours - are residing somewhere in Asperger's domain. Kathryn Stewart, director of the Orion Academy, a high school for high-functioning kids in Moraga, California, calls Asperger's syndrome "the engineers' disorder." Bill Gates is regularly diagnosed in the press: His single-minded focus on technical minutiae, rocking motions, and flat tone of voice are all suggestive of an adult with some trace of the disorder. Dov's father told me that his friends in the Valley say many of their coworkers "could be diagnosed with ODD - they're odd." In Microserfs, novelist Douglas Coupland observes, "I think all tech people are slightly autistic."

Whenever I have heard this it sets off alarm bells in my mind. Partly because I think people drawn to computers often tend to be introverted and as a result quite possibly diagnose themselves with Asperger's.

Is there any evidence that shows a higher incidence of people with Asperger's Syndrome who work in IT or computer science? If so, is there anything that shows that it is more than a novel correlation?

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another datum point. Degree in Electronics with CS - score 15. Dunno what that says about me though :-) –  Rory Alsop Feb 17 '12 at 12:08
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I would guess that it's the other way around: not that there is an unusually large amount of Aspies in technical fields, but that among fields Aspies might choose for an occupation, technical ones dominate. –  Ana Feb 17 '12 at 21:58
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Oh, and all else being equal, any male-dominated field should have more people with Asperger's than fields with more females. –  Ana Feb 17 '12 at 22:06
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@Ana I don't see the distinction. If people with Aspergers tend to gravitate towards technical fields then there would be a higher incidence of people with aspergers in technical fields, which is what the question is asking. –  user6327 Feb 18 '12 at 0:36
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One of most commonly known Aspie is a woman in totally non-IT related field. Kathy Reichs, forensic anthropologist and author of crime books which are base for TV series "Bones". "Bones" character is closely based on author, although it's been said that in real life she's doesn't have as strong Asperger's traits. –  vartec Feb 18 '12 at 11:53

2 Answers 2

This area has recently received a good deal of attention, with conflicting results.

This recent study compared the prevalence of ASD in technical and non-technical students in the Netherlands. They found a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

One interesting study examined whether the children of engineers are more likely to have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The researchers reported that there was a non-significant trend (p ≤ 0.07) towards ASD in children whose mothers work in "hi-tech occupations", and that no such trend was found for fathers.1,2 Note that this finding conflicts with other studies examining the exact same phenomenon.

Another interesting study coming out in May 2013 examines correlations between individuals with ASD and technical proficiency. The study showed some correlation between ASD and technical proficiency, but I'm not really sure what you can conclude given that data about ASD and technical field employment; just because you're good at something doesn't mean you do it. Also, correlation ≠ causality and all that.


1 This particular researcher has done other work examining links between ASD and other factors (e.g., environmental, location & SES factors) as well, which may be interesting to examine.

2 I found many of these by searching Pubmed and then examining the "Cited By" page for the relevant Pubmed articles. There's a bunch of stuff I didn't cite, mainly due to time contraints; hopefully someone else can pick up where I left off.

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The "interesting" study is largely irrelevant, but astonishing since I had believed the myth that said the opposite.May even be worth its own question! –  Oddthinking Mar 18 '13 at 21:45
    
@Oddthinking - The stuff I posted is just what I could find while at work today. I just added a link that supports what you had though. As I said, this is a field with conflicting results. –  eykanal Mar 19 '13 at 0:43

Here is a passage written by 'Psychology Today' explaining Aspergers Syndrome.

Interests/Obsessions:

From a young age, most people with Asperger’s develop a specific “pet subject,” which they will throw all their energy and time into learning. Most frequently, a person with Asperger’s will choose only one at a time (or as many people with Asperger’s will say, it chooses them), and it will become the core of their lives. The special interest often fall in to the areas of science, mathematics, engineering, or mechanics, but there are also many people who develop interests in art, writing, or other creative pursuits.

As adults, we will often be drawn by that special interest into our careers. Many scientists, computer programmers, and academics are believed to have Asperger’s. We typically have prodigious memories, which allow us to catalog and store large amounts of information, and a laser focus to acquire all possible information on a subject.

In order to keep order in our world, and cope with our other challenges, many people with Asperger’s develop a very rigid “rules based” way of doing things. Many struggle with change, and prefer, and almost obsessively maintain “sameness” in their world. Because of the lack of certain instincts, and our “script based” way of relating to the world, we have trouble varying routines. We have to rely on rote.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/aspergers

Also have a look at this video here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBXZWB_dNsw

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Welcome to Skeptics! This isn't a definitive reference; it is just a repeat of the claim. They don't explain how they know that "Many scientists, computer programmers, and academics are believed to have Asperger’s" (or, more importantly, why it is believed that many have Asperger's.) –  Oddthinking Mar 18 '13 at 10:57

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