Autism is one of the most talked-about topics of the last few decades, and it will remain so until we find out why it happens. We already know that the MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism — but what does? A professor from Cambridge University shares his fascinating and surprising findings this month.
Autistic Children Have Engineer Fathers More Often
Could autism and genetic, and perhaps a side effect of something else, like a very scientific mind? Cambridge professor Simon Baron-Cohen's research certainly points us in that direction. His team's 1997 findings showed that that autistic children have “geeky” parents much more often than the average kid.
The professor and his colleague Sally Wheelwright questioned 2,000 UK families about their professional histories. Half of those families had at least one autistic child, while the others had other conditions: Tourette's Syndrome, Down Syndrome, or language delays without autism.
The team focused on the father's professional title, because the large percentage of stay-at-home moms would not give an accurate picture of the mother's talents. They also asked about both grandfather's professions. Baron-Cohen and Wheelright found that:
A grand total of 12.5 percent of autistic children's fathers were engineers.
Only five percent of other dads were engineers.
Of both maternal and paternal grandfathers of autistic children, 21.2 percent had been engineers during their working life.
To compare, only two percent of grandfathers of non-autistic children were engineers.
Moms of kids with autism were more likely to have engineer dads themselves, and also chose engineer husbands more often.
More Autism Research Pointing To Genetic Causes
Professor Baron-Cohen was also involved in other research that suggests that autism has a string genetic factor. Mathematicians were found to have a sibling with an autism spectrum condition more often, and students of mathematics and other natural and technological sciences had more autistic traits than those pursuing other degrees.
Baron-Cohen and his Dutch colleague Dr Rosa Hoekstra, who is an expert on autism, found that “autism diagnoses are more common in an IT-rich area”. Where are talking about areas where lots of engineers and scientists live, work, get together and start families — like Silicon Valley in California, and Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
In Eindhoven, 30 percent of all jobs are in technological sectors. Data collected from schools in the city showed that autism affected 225 per 10,000 children. That is compared to 84 and 57 per 10,000 in the less tech-minded Dutch cities of Haarlem and Utrecht respectively. Baron-Cohen and his colleague commented that further research is required, but the difference really is quite striking.
Are you as interested in this research as I am? If you are a self-confessed geek yourself, you probably have a thing or two to say on this topic. Parents who are university graduates may like to take part in the ongoing research into the underlying genetics of autism.
The Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge have set up a website where you can share your data to contribute to this important research. You can find the link to the Graduate Parents Project website in the links section below this article.