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.

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

  1. Not too shocking to read this. My wife works with children diagnosed with ASD (autism spectrum disorder), and it often happens one of the parents is an academic or engineer or other like kind of professional.

  2. Something to consider as a geek is that you may already, and probably, already carry the Autism gene. That means whether your mate is a geek or not you still have a 1:150 chance of your child being autistic. Mating with someone that's also a geek (and thus has an increased chance of carrying the gene) increases those odds. For those with autistic children or if you're worried that maybe is (or will be) autistic I would suggest having your child tested early. Ages 2 and 3 years old is a great time to test and get help. If caught early ABA therapy can make a drastic difference in the life of the child. I'm not saying it's a cure. There is no cure because it's not an illness, but it will help the child learn to acknowledge and understand what most of society takes as common knowledge. This will help to elevate some of the social awkwardness and academic struggle the child will likely face growing up.

  3. This would explain why autism is more prevalent these days. With the choices for we have as mates continuing to grow with advent of broader communication people are finding people more like them rather than the people they grew up with in their small town.

  4. I question the truism that autism is more prevalent today — the diagnosis is made more frequently, certainly, but I wonder if the actual syndrome (or collection of syndromes) is actually increasing. From my limited experience with the autistic and those on the spectrum, I can imagine that many people exhibiting these behaviors would have, in the past, have been labeled "retarded" or even insane and institutionalized (and from there, out of sight/out of (society's) collective mind.) Has anyone ever run the numbers to see whether non-Down-Syndrome intellectual disabilities declined while autism was "increasing"?

  5. My wife and I are both geeks. Our cred- her father was a nuclear engineer who named her after his favorite D&D character. My father is an engineer who had me solder my first PC together, where I learned BASIC. My first degree was in computer electronics.
    Our oldest son is in the Asperger's spectrum. He is the coolest, geekiest, nerdiest kid in the world. He has been such a blessing to our family. Even after learning about the odds having it happen again, we had more children, and I suspect my youngest may be in the spectrum as well. I am not worried.
    I live near a NASA engineering facility. Almost all of the people I met that are engineers there probably fall in the spectrum. So, his issues do not really worry me. That being said, he is on the mild end of the spectrum. I have worked with kids who are the more severe end, and I worry for them.

  6. Is it terrible of me that the thing that caught my attention most in this article was his "all 151 [pokemon] and their evolutions " statement? It's been over a decade since there were that few.
    And no it probably wouldn't dissuade me to answer his final query.

  7. It is interesting. I'm a computer programmer, and my youngest brother is a rather high functioning autistic. My mother and I have both noticed that we have some traits, but both of us are neurotypical in that regard. I do however have OCD, which is something that is often comorbid with autism though my brother is unaffected.

    At the same time, I am a bit concerned about the current method for classifying autism. There is a list of symptoms, and having a certain number can result in a diagnosis. The result is the two people can be diagnosed with autism, and yet they can exhibit completely different sets of symptoms. This leads me to wonder if we have a few different conditions actually being classified under one broad rubric.

  8. My oldest daughter is High Functioning Autistic. Her father and I both have symptoms of the disorder, but neither of us carry the diagnosis. My youngest daughter does not have the disorder. She has a different father, but we are both geeks and he has some of the traits, but not the same as my older daughters father. I feel like there is some credibility to this theory, but only time and more testing will tell if this is the key to figuring out what causes and how to properly treat Autism.

  9. My spouse is an engineer and I am currently working on a degree in software engineering. We have 3 children, one is autistic (he is an awesomely geeky kid). It doesn't surprise me to hear that there is potentially a connection between autism and having geeky parents.
    I do think that the reason that the diagnosis rate for autism is so high has more to do with how the classify it. Even the doctor who diagnosed him has said that the spectrum has expanded to include individuals who wouldn't have been considered autistic 20 years ago. Another reason is that as awareness increases people are more likely to notice signs and traits and get a diagnosis.

  10. Looking back at my family and as I'm meeting more and more of my newlywed wife's family, the more certain I am that some, if not all, of children will fall somewhere within the realm of autistic. And I will do my darndest to make sure they get the attention they deserve to catch it early and help them along with it. I never had help. My parents just insisted I was fine. That's turned out brilliantly, hahaha. I'm thankful today's focus on it gives me more resources for my future children than it did for my parents with me.

    Also, there will always only ever be 151 Pokemon. After that, it just got ridiculous. But then again, many people say similar things regarding Star Trek serieses. There was Enterprise, but it wasn't Star Trek. There were other "Pokemon", but they weren't Pokemon, hahaha. #NoSchoolLikeTheOldSchool

  11. Sounds like typical statistical bullshit to me. One of the greatest abuses of mathematics in our world is scientific statistics. I wouldn't take too much notice of it.

  12. As a parent of a child with ASD I find this study an easy way to avoid looking for the real answer – just as in the 1950's or so years ago the researchers blamed the mother, claiming that a "refrigerator mother" caused autism or schizophrenia. To say that it is geeks marrying geeks avoids the real issue – the incidence of autism is rising and it can't ALL be geeks marrying geeks and procreating, there has to be some other factor in addition to that.

    Not to mention that there are so many variations on ASD. Some kids with ASD display no symptoms when they have a high fever, but once the fever goes away the symptoms return (which lead some to believe that there is a immune response issue). Some children with ASD display no symptoms when on a gluten free/casein free diet (which leads some to believe the issue is a digestive one). But other kids with ASD you can put on a gluten free/casein free diet and it has zero effect on them.

    I think at some point in the future, scientists will discover that what we call "Autism Spectrum Disorder" is actually composed of several completely different issues which happen to manifest similar symptoms.

  13. We have degrees in the medical fields and an autistic son. We recognise traits in ourselves..especially from our difficult geeky childhoods. We also have a family history on both sides…I have been doing some of my own research on this as I was curious.
    My son has a theory about autism. He believes that everything evolves to either grow stronger or to develop better survival skills…during the evolving cycle there are some mutations and some success…we are going through this cycle still which means that we have variations on the spectrum. We are evolving to become more intelligent.

    • I actually believe like your son. My twins are autistic and pdd-nos. I truly believe that this is an evolutionary step for humans and when people ask me what I think causes autism I tell them I honestly believe it's evolution happening. We're growing smarter and more accepting – people on the spectrum tend to not judge and most are intelligent in their own ways.

  14. I wouldn’t be dissuaded. From what I’ve seen,most people in the spectrum seem capable of coping with the downsides while taking advantage of the upsides. Some even identify it as a blessing overall, and are glad for the traits that it causes in them — I would count myself among those people.

  15. A very interesting look at it. I have 2 children, my son is 5 1/2 and is autistic. I often look at him and see many traits of both myself and my husband. Many of these things have crossed my mind since his diagnosis. It's a very interesting theory, and it will be interesting to see where it goes as the studies progress.
    Now having a child on the spectrum, I can't imagine I would ever not want him. He is incredible. At times things are harder for him, and yes its frustrating for all involved, but there is a way that he sees the world and allows me to see the world, that is more beautiful than I can even begin to describe. He has taught me patience, self control, and positivity in a way nothing else in my life has ever been able to. I look forward to seeing what he brings to this world as he grows. He is brilliant and wonderful.

  16. As a nerd with high functioning autism I say duh. So much of what happens with autism is just when you take nerdy traits to an extreme. Seriously though if I have kids I hope that they are on the spectrum because it is such a cool way of thinking.

    I also am not sure if the condition is actually growing though. If it is it is not as much as people say. When I was a child people knew I was different but couldn't Dx me. There was no category for high functioning autism or aspergers until I was older. This change has hugely expanded the number of people who fit the qualifications of the condition.

  17. My boyfriend has Aspergers and I probably have a few symptoms of it too, though I've never been tested so I don't know for sure if I am or not. I'm perfectly ready to accept that if we have children, they'll be more likely to have autism; doesn't bother me, I'll still love the kid and at least we might have something in common!

  18. It seems to me that the cart is going somewhere before the horse here. Rather than the offspring being on the spectrum because their parents are techy and geeky, consider that the parents are techy and geeky because they feature somewhere on the spectrum themselves and as such are more likely to have children with aspergers. Personally I don’t think autuism/aspergers is any more prevalent now than it was years ago, however increased awareness and sensitivity towards the condition is leading to more cases being diagnosed which would previously have been dismissed as bad behaviour, mental handicap or just plain oddness…

    My wife is an aspergers researcher and she’s firmly convinced that most people feature somewhere on the spectrum and it’s only the cases further along it that get recognised as such. Looking at myself and my geeky mates I can’t help but agree!

    • It was my first instinct to argue that perhaps people with barely diagnosable autistic traits gravitate towards the geek community, rather than spring from geeky parents. I am 21 and over the past few years have had noticed some autistic traits in myself and through my research saw a lot of testimonies from others stating how many of their relatives are also on the spectrum.
      I believe there is a strong genetic component to it, so to wonder that if a geeky, possibly already slightly autistic, couple may conceive an autistic child is possible is somewhat of a no-brainer.
      For the sake of evidence, my fiance is also a huge nerd and really had my come out of the proverbial nerd closet when we started dating. And my father is an engineer and my mother an artistic director for our theater. We're just a bunch of weirdos.

  19. I met my former husband on star wars galaxies mmorpg. We produced identical twin boys who were diagnosed on the spectrum. I am very much a geek girl involved in the maker movement and he is a computer guy with Aspergers. I am truly amazed at times by the way my boys process information. The way they categorize and remember all details of games and scenarios is truly amazing! They can remember very specifics of character abilities and moves, levels and bosses…it warms the heart.

    • lol Karin, me and my husband met on Final Fantasy XI and then played WoW together lol we now have 3 children – b/g twins that are diagnosed autistic and pdd-nos, while our youngest seems neurotypical. My children are 4 and 2. My 4 year old autistic twins play WoW – they log in, they pick a character and even name it. They kill mobs, loot mobs and even rez themselves. They're incredibly bright although my son has only about 5 words and my daughter has about 20-30. She can also sing in other languages like Italian and Hindu – she's memorized songs from movies that are in those languages. It's truly amazing what our children can do and I wouldn't wish them any other way :) I love my geeky family :)

  20. This is true of my wife and I. We’ve got a son on the spectrum, and I work as a programmer analyst, so essentially an engineering career.

  21. I don't see any distinction between someone who's a fan of Pokémon and someone who's a fan of… say… Football. Knows the names of loads of players, how skilled they are, how many goals they've scored etc. I think the distinction between "Geek" and "Everyone else" is just something people made up.
    My parents aren't technically minded and I have aspergers syndrome. It all sounds like nonsense to me. I might be wrong though.

    • when they use the term geeky in this article, i believe they mean to say that someone that knows every player of 1 or more team's highlights/stats/or whatever major "obsessive" level of collected and treasured info, is a geek just as much as someone who knew all 151 pokemon when there were that many.
      Quote: "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."

  22. My husband is a technician and I am an artist, but also great with numbers. We have a daughter, about to be four and are so lucky that she doesn't have any autism… maybe some ADHD, but at least she is fit! She CAN focus for extended periods, but only if I help her do so. I wonder, could it be possible that my art and teaching it to her from a young age, perhaps "disuaded" autistic tendencies or could have possible encouraged ADHD tendencies?

  23. Well, that just makes it genetic.
    To me it seems very obvious. Look around the room. Is everybody wearing glasses? I think our big brains put a lot of developmental energy into the being smart part of the brain and not so much into eyeball development! Most of my genius friends are pretty weird… probably "in the spectrum" somewhere. I think it's the same thing. We all aren't great at everything. We develop specialities.
    Besides, who needs to get along with people when you can see the patterns in all those numbers?
    I like what one of the other comments said about humans evolving into a smarter species.

  24. For me, this reinforces my personal (totally non-academic and barely properly informed) theory that the rise in people on the spectrum is actually caused by having the children later in life. Keep in mind that only 100 years ago, it would have been unusual for a woman to have children after the age of about 25. Today, it's very unusual for a professional woman to have a child before 25. The number of women getting pregnant after the age of 35 has skyrocketed in the past couple of decades.

    The people most likely to postpone having children? Highly motivated professionals, particularly ones where both spouses have active careers.

    • I had my son, who is on the spectrum at age 29. That is not later in life. There are a myriad of complications that can occur when the parents are over 40, but many, many parents of kids on the spectrum had their kids in the late 20's to early 30's.

  25. I really hoped this was a joke…as a parent of a child on the spectrum let me say that the vaccine issue IS NOT DEBUNKED- only in the media. Environmental issues are still a possible culprit, and that INCLUDES vaccines, which are also responsible for a host of other childhood issues.

    This is right up there with maternal and paternal age, eating seafood while pregnant, catching a cold while pregnant, living near a freeway and apparently breathing. When REAL studies are done involving heredity and environmental toxicity, go ahead and get back to me.

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