Autism, Asperger’s and Addiction in the High-Tech Industry

 Illustration with word cloud on disease AutismIllustration with word cloud on disease AutismA February post postulated that substance abuse may be more prevalent in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley than is generally known. Anecdotal evidence from Silicon Valley addiction experts who treat a number of clients from the industry suggested that this is true. Why? The stress involved in working in such a competitive environment — trying to be the first to launch a product.

Those with normal and above-average intelligence are said to have high-functioning autism. Asperger’s syndrome is closely related.” The Autism Society explains that people with Asperger’s exhibit “less severe symptoms and the absence of language delays [in childhood]”. WebMD also holds that high-functioning autistic people as well as people with Asperger’s are “good fits for technically demanding jobs. Not only does the internet downplay autistic social deficits, but the language of computers also allows some people with autism to give full expression to their exceptional abilities.”

Perhaps you’ve known or seen someone on the spectrum who seems intensely interested in how things work. One of the experts WebMD quoted said that these people’s brains are wired differently. They “pick out patterns in information and to discern the logical rules that govern systems. That means people with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism often have great talents for creating and analyzing mechanical systems, such as engines, or abstract systems, like mathematics and computer programs.” Gawker reported that “cases of Asperger’s and autism … exploded in Silicon Valley over the past 20 years, according to state-funded outreach workers — an assertion that will come as no shock to users familiar with pedantic, apathetic, tight-lipped and self-serving tech companies.”

To be fair, Silicon Valley isn’t the only area cited as having a high incidence of these conditions. There’s Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft is located, and the northwest Rochester, where IBM is located, is also mentioned as a possibility. Gawker also noted that there are no statistics surrounding the number of programmers and engineers, for example, that are on the spectrum, but “popular belief holds that places like NASA and Silicon Valley are havens for them.” Even Computerworld, one of the industry bibles, has weighed in, with an article titled “Asperger’s: the IT industry’s dark secret,” in which several techies on the spectrum commented. Temple Grandin, who has Asperger’s, says we wouldn’t even have computers without techies with Asperger’s. So where does substance abuse and recovery come in, you might ask. Do people on the spectrum have substance abuse problems like others?

Maia Szalivitz, a “neuroscience journalist” who often writes about addiction, details her thoughts in an article in The Atlantic (which originally appeared in a publication called Spectrum). It opens with the story of a man addicted to heroin who finally got clean. Afterward he was diagnosed with autism, although the signs were there all along. Szalivitz says that for years, the commonly held belief was that addiction among people with autism is rare, since they follow rules and are usually isolated from their peers, for example. But a study in Sweden found the opposite to be true — people on the higher end of the spectrum are “more than twice as likely to become addicted,” and it’s worse if they also have ADHA. Experts in the article say that people on the spectrum find that alcohol eases social anxiety, and they may become addicted. The same holds true of marijuana. Impulsive behaviors in this population are also a problem and can lead to gambling or internet shopping addiction. An article about autism and addiction in Psychology Today by a person who runs a California treatment center included research from the Washington University School of Medicine, where experts studied Australian twins. The findings were that “people with autistic traits were no more likely to drink or use marijuana than people without these traits, but that people with autistic traits who drank or smoked pot were more likely to become addicted to or otherwise abuse these substances.” The writer noted the difference between a person exhibiting autistic symptoms and actually having a diagnosis, however. He posits that “a diagnosis is likely to accompany a more extreme form of the disorder. And it seems from this research as if a more extreme form of the disorder may keep autistic people from even experimenting with substances.” A psychiatrist he interviewed said “it could be that some traits related to autism are protective, while others elevate the risk for alcohol and substance-abuse problems.” If anything, the information in these articles shows a need for more study between autism and addiction.