FRIDAY, June 24, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Autism experts have long noted that they meet a lot of engineers and computer programmers who have autistic children compared to, say, salespeople. A new study suggests there may be merit to those observations.
Researchers from Cambridge University in England found that nearly three times as many children were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in a region of the Netherlands known as a center of high-tech industry than in two other regions with fewer high-tech jobs.
The possible explanation: Autism is highly heritable -- meaning, it runs in families -- and has a strong genetic component related to a trait called "systemizing," which is a skill for analyzing how systems work and creating them. Workers in high-tech industries -- engineering and computing, for example -- tend to excel at systemizing.
"The theory is that people with autism may have a relative strength in systemizing, or the drive to analyze how systems work, how systems behave, how you can control them and build new ones," said study co-author Rosa Hoekstra, a visiting scientist with the Autism Research Center at Cambridge and an assistant professor of psychology at the Open University in Milton Keynes, England. "In the engineer or physicist or mathematician, these traits are advantageous, but it might cause difficulties in the children and show up as a clinical diagnosis of autism."
Some parents of autistic children have personality traits that are similar to those of autistic people, though not to the degree that they would be considered autistic, she added.
"They can function in society, but they have some personality or cognitive characteristics that are consistent with autism, such as a real preference for routines, or some social difficulties," Hoekstra said.
The study, published June 17 online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, has implications for the distribution of services to autistic children, the authors said.
For the study, researchers asked schools in three regions of the Netherlands -- Eindhoven, Haarlem and Utrecht -- for statistics on children with an autism spectrum disorder. Children with autism often struggle with communication and social interactions, exhibit repetitive behaviors and have strong but narrow interests.
All three regions are similar in population size and socioeconomics, but Eindhoven is the Netherland's information technology hub. It's home to Eindhoven University of Technology, the High Tech Campus Eindhoven, and several technology companies, including Philips, ASML, IBM and ATOS Origin.
About 30 percent of jobs in Eindhoven are in technology or ICT compared to 16 percent in Haarlem and 17 percent in Utrecht.
The schools provided diagnostic information on more than 62,500 children. About 2.3 percent (or 229 for every 10,000) children in Eindhoven had autism, almost three times as many as in Haarlem (84 per 10,000) and four times as many as in Utrecht (57 per 10,000).
The rate in the United States is estimated to be about 1 percent.
Dr. Gary Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, said the findings mirror his experiences with parents of autistic children. "I haven't met that many high-end people in sales with children with autism, but I met all these very successful people in the backroom processing the data," he said.
And while a doubling or a tripling of the risk is "enormous" in statistical terms, parents should also rest assured that it still means the vast majority of children -- 98 percent -- born to engineers or high-tech types will not have autism.
Researchers acknowledged their study had limitations, including the possibility that parents in the high-tech region were more attuned to the signs of autism and that the kids were more likely to be diagnosed, and that they relied on numbers from the schools but were unable to examine the kids themselves.
They are planning a follow-up study to test for other factors that might explain their finding.
Prior research has found that the mothers of children with autism are more likely to work in highly technical occupations, that autism is more common among the siblings of mathematics students, and that autism is more common among children who have fathers or grandfathers who worked as engineers, according to background information in the study.
"This suggests some link between a talent for systemizing and autism," Hoekstra said.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more on autism.