Researchers are reporting today that children born to parents in the northern neighborhoods of San Diego are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with autism as kids in the rest of San Diego and Imperial counties, making the area one of 10 autism clusters in the state.

It isn’t clear whether children in those communities are more prone to develop autism or are simply more likely to be diagnosed with it. The researchers, who report their findings in the journal Autism Research, were only were able to find one factor that links the clusters: They’re in neighborhoods with lots of highly educated people.

Don’t get too worried if you live in these places: Your kids are still very unlikely to be diagnosed with autism. The study, which looked at kids born between 1996 and 2000, found autism diagnoses in just 60 out of 9,804 children born to parents who lived in the cluster region, which includes parts of La Jolla, University City, Carmel Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos.

That’s a rate of less than 1 percent.

The researchers also found that statewide, Latinos were about half as likely to be diagnosed with autism as white non-Latinos. They didn’t find a similar pattern among other ethnicities.

Clusters of disease are a controversial topic in the world of medicine. There’s eternal debate over whether the clusters just occur randomly, signifying nothing, or are signs that something in the environment is making people sick.

(Last year, I wrote about a possible cancer cluster at San Diego State, where three people who worked in the same office have died — two in 2008 — of an unusual form of brain cancer. The university declined to investigate, unlike UCSD, which looked into a cluster of breast cancer cases at a building on its campus.)

So what should we make of this study, which is the first to look for autism clusters in the state? I talked today to its lead author, Karla Van Meter, who worked on it while attending UC Davis and is now an epidemiologist with Northern California’s Sonoma County.

Your study links high levels of education among parents to higher rates of autism in these clusters. But you didn’t find a link to how wealth the parents are.

We didn’t have any information on parents’ income. We just had education, race and ethnicity.

Is it possible that something in the environment of highly educated people — like something they have in their houses — could be causing autism?

There are two things that could be happening.

There’s the common-sense thing that if you’re highly educated, you’re probably going to be more successful in getting services for your kid. Or it could be maybe something is going on. It could be genetic or the physical, chemical and social environment. We don’t know.

What do you think causes autism?

In epidemiology, you say there are the immune, the doomed and the susceptible. There is probably a genetic factor that means some children will get autism, and there’s probably a bunch who have a genetic predisposition and something tips it over.


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