Geeky Parents Are (Probably) More Likely to Have Children with Autism

The origins of autism spectrum disorders has long been under debate; everything from childhood vaccines (now debunked) to prenatal care to environmental agents have been researched, and while the causes of autism are perhaps varied and unpredictable, and research is still incomplete, the best working theory involves assortative mating. Backing up the idea that specific personality and genetic characteristics of a child’s parents are responsible for autism is a newly released report from UK researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen.

Baron-Cohen, along with colleague Sally Wheelwright, conducted a series of autism studies, one in which one group of parents with autistic children and another group of parents with children who had Down syndrome, Tourette’s and language delays — but not autism — were interviewed about their jobs. The findings revealed that parents of autistic children were more likely to be technically-minded, with occupations in engineering, than parents of children with other developmental disorders. Further studies by the pair revealed that math students had a 1.8% incidence of autism and Aspergers diagnoses and a higher rate of siblings with autism than the general population, and that tech-industry hotbeds like Silicon Valley also report a higher rate of autism in children.

Working through several smaller studies, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright determined that while increased levels of prenatal testosterone likely play a role in childhood autism, the impact of assortative mating could not be ruled out as a major cause. So what is assortative mating? The simplest definition is that like attracts like: people who share similar physical traits, interests or personalities will find each other attractive. This theory runs counter to the popular adage “opposites attract,” but its persistence should not be overlooked in favor of cliches. The role of assortative mating, it seems, is likely responsible for the prevalence of autism in the general population, as parents with similar obsessive tendencies, attraction to systemizing data and personality types are likely to produce offspring with those traits. This is easy to understand when you consider who you find attractive, especially as a geek: if you’re a fan of Pokemon, it might be more attractive to you that a significant other also knows the names of all 151 characters and their evolutions than a person who doesn’t. Likewise, a fan of classical piano might find a mate attractive if the other person also knows the full canon of Chopin than one who doesn’t. At the core of Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright’s studies lies the attraction to information systemization – close attention to detail and sorting data – and topical obsession, which for most would be a good working definition of geekiness.

There’s not room here to discuss each study in detail, but Baron-Cohen has done exactly that over at Scientific American, where you can read more about the research and its implications for child-bearing geeks. When you’ve done that, come back here and tell us your thoughts in the comments. As a geek, would knowing that you and an equally-geeky partner are possibly more likely to have autistic children dissuade you from having kids, or do you feel like this is all a bunch of stuff?

Creative Commons licensed photo via Jenn and Tony Bot on Flickr.