Researchers at the MIND Institute in San Francisco went looking for autism clusters in California. Their hope was to find an environmental factor that might warrant special study. What they found, instead, was that wealthy, white, college educated parents seem to have more children diagnosed with autism.
This finding raises some interesting questions - though it almost certainly says nothing about environmental factors related to autism.
One question, of course, is - "is there a genetic factor here? are we looking, perhaps, at the outcome of the .com revolution of the 90's, during which time many highly technical, somewhat introverted (perhaps mildly autistic) individuals migrated to California, met one another, and married?"
The second and equally interesting question is - "Are wealthy, white, college educated people more likely to seek out diagnoses and services for their children whose social/communications skills don't fit their expectations?" Connected to this question is the reality that these folks are far more likely than most other groups to have access to high end health care - and often can afford more private services.
If this is the case, we are looking at a cultural and economic trend that, in my opinion, is having a significant impact on our understanding of autism spectrum disorders.
According to an article on the ABC News site:
The researchers looked at about 2.5 million births recorded in California from 1996 through 2000. About 10,000 of those children were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the state's department of developmental services.
Using data from birth records, the team found a strong link between parental education and the high rates of autism.
"In this particular case, we found 10 clusters of autism across the state of California. When we looked further, we discovered virtually all of them were areas where there was a higher level of education among the parents who were giving birth in those years," Hertz-Picciotto said.
"We already know that people with a higher education in the United States are more likely to get a diagnosis of autism for their child. It doesn't necessarily mean that autism occurs more frequently in those families," she said.
The study itself will be released today in the journal Autism Research.