Does Affluence Cause Autism?

Have you seen this new University of Wisconsin study that correlates an increased prevalence of autism with greater household affluence?

This isn’t the first study to reach that conclusion. But what does it mean? Many researchers dismiss research like this by saying wealthier people have more resources to get an autism diagnosis. They say more educated people are more likely to pick up subtle differences in their kids. And perhaps they’re right.

Does that account for all the difference?

The incidence of autism combined with intellectual disability is not strongly (1.3 to 1) correlated with affluence. It’s only the less severe forms of autism that are more common in wealthier homes. Is that because autism combined with ID is obvious, but the less severe condition is not?

Maybe . . . but maybe not . . .

Researchers note that intellectual disability by itself is inversely correlated with family affluence.That is, the more prosperous the family, the less likely they are to have an ID child.Knowing that, even a 1:3 to 1 correlation in the opposite direction may be suggestive of an unrecognized autism-affluence dynamic, even for the most severely affected kids.

The difference in non-intellectually-disabled kids is truly striking. For kids with autism, but without ID, there was almost a 3:1 ratio of autism in the highest socioeconomic group versus the lowest group. That’s a pretty shocking ratio.

This study has some pretty profound implications.

If it’s true that most of this 3:1 difference is due to more aware parents with better resources, then it follows that two out of three poor children with autism are going undiagnosed.

Sobering thought, isn’t it?

Seen in that light, I find it hard to jump to the conclusion that we’re failing to diagnose two out of three kids with higher functioning autism. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle . . . there is some unknown reason that high functioning autism is associated with affluence, and we are still failing to diagnose a significant chunk of our less affluent population.

The researchers in this study seem to feel the same way.

This newest study attempts to address the question with some new methodologies. They looked at roughly half a million kids in a database compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, some of whom were diagnosed by doctors while others were diagnosed through schools. Some children had a pre-existing autism diagnosis, while others’ records were evaluated as part of this study.

Here’s the interesting thing:

No matter how you cut the study results, there is always a significant correlation between the incidence of autism and family affluence, even for kids who came into the study with no diagnosis. That sure suggests that there is some underlying reason that more affluent people are more likely to have autistic kids.

Do you remember Steve Silberman’’s Geek Syndrome article from Wired Magazine, some years back? It looks like he had it right . . .

I had actually not thought about that story recently, but my son and Alex Plank interviewed Steve about that at this year’s Autreat conference. You can see their videos of Steve here:

Autism Talk TV

Why might affluent people tend to produce autistic kids? What do you think? Why might more affluent people be more likely to have kids who are “different?”

A significant percentage of our affluent population became financially successful by thinking differently.Some of those people invented new things.Others solved problems that defied solution.A few devised novel strategies to analyze markets.What do those people have in common?They think “differently.”

Some people who think “differently” are just ordinary folks with a different thought every now and then. Others, however, are different all the time because their brains are different. Fifty years ago, such people were called eccentric. Today, more and more of those individuals are called autistic, or Asperger’s.

It’s an interesting thought . . . most adults with autism are not successful financially. They are disabled, and poor. Yet a significant percentage of highly successful people in engineering, analysis, and the sciences have autistic traits. Does a little bit of autism make you exceptionally successful, while a lot makes you exceptionally disabled?

I think so.

At the same time, our society has created institutions where geeky people with autistic traits congregate. Biotech companies. Electronic design firms. Research labs. Even Wall Street firms with their rooms full of mathematical savants. It should come as no surprise that males and females meet in those environments, and children result. To the extent that autism is genetic, we have created a unique environment for genetic reinforcement in those institutions.

What else is different, for affluent kids, and how might those differences lead to autism?

And what about the less affluent kids who are going undiagnosed? That is the less discussed but equally important finding of this research. How are we going to identify these kids so we can get them the help they need, and more important, where are we as a society going to get the money to pay for it with schools and autism service groups nationwide in a state of fiscal collapse?

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0 thoughts on “Does Affluence Cause Autism?

  • I think people are overlooking some very obvious things here. A lot of points you made in the post are very valid; more money to diagnose, and the educated ability to notice subtle traits.

    I also think that electronics have something to do with it, but not because of radiation or other such bullshit. It’s pure and simple; affluent families have money for computers and televisions and smart phones for their children. Autism and Aspergers, especially those with no intellectual disability, are primarily a social disorder. Children of affluent families today grow up spending more time communicating through electronic means than real human contact, and this is taking a toll on their social development.

    There is also a huge concern that Autism has grown rapidly in recent years. Might this also be because we are a generation raised by computers? One of the biggest reasons for this growth is an increase in people diagnosed, as the definition was changed to account for people with no intellectual disability. But it cannot be denied that this corrosponds with the amount of time spent communicating through electronic devices rather than real communication.

  • @tlsmom – I have often wondered the same thing. My parents are by no means affluent… yet as a computer geek, my dad had all sorts of electronic gadgets around and on most of the time. I was constantly exposed to whatever electromagnetic interference they produce… my son is more obviously on the spectrum than I am, and I am almost as big a computer geek as my dad. I have often wondered what the low-level radiation produced by everything electronic does to a person’s brain. You know the saying, “You can’t observe a thing without effecting it”… there aren’t a whole lot of American “control” groups left.  (This was one of the main reasons the research for book “The China Study” was done in rural China as opposed to any industrial community, granted, that was about food, but the idea is still the same.)

  • Let’s see… What is increasing at a similar rate of autism in our society, more prevalent among the affluent and particularly rampant in the silicon valley? The Answer….Wireless radiation!!  The affluent are more likely to have the latest greatest wireless gadgets and have them on 24/7, wi-fi, security systems, wireless baby cameras and monitors, blackberrys and cell phones.  Time will tell if the poor catch up in their autism diagnoses as wireless radiation increasingly permeates their environment 24/7.  We shall see.  Documented studies on the biomedical effects of wireless radiation show a striking similarly to autism: abnormal energy metabolism, increase in oxidative stress, lower production of melatonin and glutathione.  We love our cell phones, but could they be hurting our children?

  • Maybe mild Asperger’s is diagnosed more in those  with health insurance who go to doctors who have to diagnose something if they want to get their money, and is not even thought of as more than someone being socially awkward in groups of people here ‘diagnosed’ as poor.  

    I think you might find that there is a similar situation with ADHD/ADD. The rich get ritalin and the poor tell their overactive children to sit down and behave.  In the very expensive expat (white, I live in the Caribbean) American school my son went to for a while, there were several children in every class on ritalin, three in my son’s class of 17.  When he later went to a local school (mostly black, but not necessarily poor, this is a wealthy island) there was one child on ritalin in the whole school. The psychologists for the local schools were Canadian and when my son was sent to him he took a very dim view of the American school’s attempt to have my son’s wildness and naughtiness classifed as an illness that needed treating. So the Americans by-passed these psychologists and took their kids to the US to get what they wanted.
    What’s the betting that ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder) is only diagnosed in the US and then only among the rather well-off?  (Actually if ODD happens at age 11 onwards most people diagnose their own children with adolescence).
    I think that the incidence of diagnosis may increase with wealth, but not occurence. I’d like to see a study on that!

  • We could argue that it’s because wealthier couples not only delay parenthood but end up using fertility methods to get pregnant. We could argue that it’s due to more money to put into getting a diagnosis and treatment. We could also argue that the high IQs of many wealthy people indicated a genetic component. Until their are studies that give us more answers, I’m inclined to look at what we can do to help those already affected. Regardless of cause, many families need help now and are looking for answers. Brain Balance – – contends that there is an underlying brain communication issue that contributes to symptoms of neurobehavioral disorders. Their site is worth a read, particularly the “truth” section. I also like the support offered at parents of children with autism and SPD. Good luck to all those searching for answers.


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