Autism, ADHD, and the Silicon Valley Savant Syndrome (Asperger’s syndrome)

Asperger’s Syndrome has a lot of names, but the symptoms are the same, bright and intelligent children with social anxiety bordering on anti-social behavior that amaze and astound in so many math, spatial relations, or music fields but have trouble playing with other kids, focusing on things that are not their strong suit, and often have minor physical disabilities or impairments. 

It’s basic genetics we inherit the best and worst traits of our parents, and the Silicon Valley is a melting pot and breading ground for some very smart people, with some surprisingly “Defective” DNA.  The DotCom boom brought the brightest computer science geeks to the Valley, big salaries and a community that made geeks rock stars increased greatly that this group of individuals that might previously lived their life quite happily in their mother’s basement, got some California sunshine, married and had kids.  Anyone working in the Valley has seen co-workers that show mild autism, or Adult ADHD, which would seem to define two of the key people at Microsoft, Bill Gates showing signs of Autism, and Steve Balmer appearing to be ADHD

Bill Gates showing signs of Autism, and Steve Balmer appearing to be ADHD

The result of these pairings are entering schools in Silicon Valley now. Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals first made news in 2001 when Wired wrote about “The Geek Syndrome” 

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.”

Autism has a relatively short history of diagnosis.  It wasn’t even named until 1943 when a child psychiatrist named Leo Kanner published a monograph outlining a curious set of behaviors he noticed in 11 children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  Autism comes from the Latin “Auto” meaning self, because children with the Syndrome withdraw into their own self.

In the past decade, there has been a significant surge in the number of kids diagnosed with autism throughout California. In August 1993, there were 4,911 cases of so-called level-one autism logged in the state’s Department of Developmental Services client-management system. This figure doesn’t include kids with Asperger’s syndrome, but only those who have received a diagnosis of classic autism. In the mid-’90s, this caseload started spiraling up. In 1999, the number of clients was more than double what it had been six years earlier. Then the curve started spiking. By July 2001, there were 15,441 clients in the DDS database. Now there are more than seven new cases of level-one autism – 85 percent of them children – entering the system every day.

In many cases these children enter the public school system to be Main Streamed, receiving an IEP, which offers some accommodations for these children but for the most part the time it takes for a school to figure out the unique learning style of each of these cases results in the students being a disruption to the rest of the classroom, and not receiving the education style they need for several years.  One school told a parent “”There is very little difference between your daughter and an animal. We have no idea what she will be able to do in the future.”

Autism’s insidious style of onset is particularly cruel to parents, because for the first two years of life, nothing seems to be wrong. Their child is engaged with the world, progressing normally, taking first steps into language. Then, suddenly, some unknown cascade of neurological events washes it all away.  But with Asperger’s onset can be even later, many children don’t see onset until it is triggered by stress, illness, or other often “fuzzy” set of events that can happen as late as 15.

Controversies rage about whether environmental factors – such as mercury and other chemicals in universally administered vaccines, industrial pollutants in air and water, and even certain foods – act as catalysts that trigger the disorder. Bernard Rimland, the first psychologist to oppose Bettelheim and promote the idea that autism was organic in origin, has become a leading advocate for intensified investigation in this area. The father of an autistic son, Rimland has been instrumental in marshaling medical expertise and family data to create better assessment protocols.

In June of 2007 courts began hearing cases about the links between thimerosal and autism.  Thimerosal is a preservative used to increase the shelf life of vaccines, and one of the active ingredients is mercury. Large scientific studies have found no association between autism and vaccines containing thimerosal.  Whether the onset of Autism is caused by the vaccines, or if it is just a coincidence that the timing of onset coincides with when children enter school is a subject of much debate.

In 1999, the U.S. government asked vaccine manufacturers to eliminate or reduce the use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines to limit infant exposure to mercury. Today, the preservative is no longer found in routine childhood vaccines but is used in some flu shots.

There is no medical test to diagnose Autism, or Asperger’s Syndrome. There are some common symptoms however.

Symptoms of autism:
Children with autism have a number of symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty interacting with others and making friends. 
  • Communication problems, both with spoken language and nonverbal gestures. About 40 percent of affected children do not talk at all (2).
  • Insistence on the same routine.
  • Repetitive movements, such as hand flapping.
  • Some degree of mental retardation or learning disabilities (in many but not all affected children).

Each child with autism is unique, but some common characteristics and behaviors may include (2, 3):

  • Repeats words
  • Doesn’t play “pretend” games
  • Doesn’t point at objects or wave “bye-bye”
  • Is overly active
  • Has frequent temper tantrums
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Has difficulty starting or maintaining conversation
  • Does not respond to being called by name
  • Repeats actions again and again
  • Focuses on single subject or activity
  • Wants to be alone
  • Is overly sensitive to the way things feel, sound, taste or smell
  • Dislikes being held or cuddled
  • Has sleep disturbances
  • Lacks fear in risky situations
  • Is aggressive
  • Hurts himself
  • Loses skills (for example, stops saying words he used to say)

Wired Magazine offers an online test created by Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre have created the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, as a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults. Assess the level of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome in Adults at the AQ Test.


For more information:
Autism Society of America
(800) 3AUTISM (328-8476)

Autism Information Center
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Nation Center on Birth Defects and
Developmental Disabilities (NCBDDD)
(800) 311-3435


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders – Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, Six Sites, United States, 2000; 14 Sites, 2002. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, February 9, 2007, volume 56, No. SS-1.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Autism Information Center. Updated 2/7/07.
  3. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Autism Research at the NICHD. May 2005.
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Autism Spectrum Disorders (with Addendum January 2007). NIH Publication Number 5511, National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Bethesda, MD, April 2004.
  5. Institute of Medicine. Immunization Safety Review: Vaccines and Autism. National Academies Press, 2004.
  6. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition); “Helping Children with Autism Learn,” by Dr. Bryna Siegal (Oxford University Press, 2003); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  7. Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Tony Attwood
  8. Autism and Asperger Syndrome (contains Hans Asperger’s original monograph), Uta Frith, ed.
  9. Autism Treatment Guide, Elizabeth Gerlach
  10. Teaching Children With Autism: Strategies for Initiating Positive Interactions and Improving
  11. Learning Opportunities, Robert L. Koegel and Lynn Kern Koegel, eds.
  12. Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The “ME” Book, Ivar Lovaas
  13. The Siege: A Family’s Journey Into the World of an Autistic Child and Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s
  14. Life With Autism, Clara Claiborne Park
  15. The World of the Autistic Child, Bryna Siegel