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When Geeks Meet, Are They More Likely To Have Autistic Kids? 327

An anonymous reader writes "Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen thinks scientists and engineers could be more likely to have a child with autism, an idea that is fairly common currency in Silicon Valley. But many researchers say the proof isn't there yet. From the article: 'Baron-Cohen proposes that systemizing ability can be inherited — and that in information-technology (IT) enclaves such as Silicon Valley, where hypersystemizers are more likely to meet, pair off and have children, the result is a higher incidence of autism. Back in 1997, for example, he concluded that fathers of children with autism were more than twice as likely to be engineers as were fathers of non-autistic children. But autism researchers ... found that fathers of children with autism were more likely to work in medicine, science and accountancy, as well as engineering, and less likely to have manual occupations. They suggested that these fathers were simply more likely to have reached a higher level of education. Baron-Cohen says that when he reanalysed the data and controlled for education level, he found that fathers of children with autism were still more likely to be engineers, although the difference was smaller.'"
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When Geeks Meet, Are They More Likely To Have Autistic Kids?

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  • by HopefulIntern ( 1759406 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:34AM (#37933492)
    I thought he just made films about annoying people..
  • by MikeyO ( 99577 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:34AM (#37933494) Homepage

    Who else said, "wait, is that Ali G?"

  • Dupe (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:35AM (#37933516)

    Isn't this a dupe []?

    Wasn't it a terrible story the first time around?

  • Date a blonde.


    • There are blond geeks. I'd pretend to be one, but I'd get lots of marriage proposals.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        Unfortunately that doesn't dissuade Internet marriage proposals; my scraggly brown locks do nothing to protect me. I would share, but an independent review board of ethicists told me I probably shouldn't. (Also, "blond" is masculine, "blonde" is feminine. Unless you were trying to imply that Linus Torvalds gets a lot of marriage proposals?)
        • my scraggly brown locks do nothing to protect me

          Perhaps you need to specify 'ask me biology questions in my journal'?

          • my scraggly brown locks do nothing to protect me

            Perhaps you need to specify 'ask me biology questions in my journal'?

            Probably still not specific enough.

      • by xaxa ( 988988 )

        There are blond geeks. I'd pretend to be one, but I'd get lots of marriage proposals.

        I don't have much choice (I don't want to dye my hair). However, I'm male, so I don't think the joke applies.

  • by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:36AM (#37933538) Homepage

    If it were true, that would imply that when geek guys meet geek girls, they get it on, instead of just looking awkwardly at each other.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If it were true, that would imply that when geek guys meet geek girls, they get it on, instead of just looking awkwardly at each other.

      My geek girlfriend and I (we're both engineers) get it on... the awkward looks back and forth are just a kinky bonus :D

    • If it were true, that would imply that when geek guys meet geek girls, they get it on, instead of just looking awkwardly at each other.

      Umm, have you actually met any geek girls? Better grab on to something*.

      * blatant over-generalization based on anecdotal experience

      • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

        Umm, have you actually met any geek girls? Better grab on to something*.

        * blatant over-generalization based on anecdotal experience

        Well now, isn't that the whole point?

  • Or perhaps... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nitehawk214 ( 222219 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:36AM (#37933540)

    Parents that are in better paid positions such as engineering ones are more likely to be able to afford to have their children properly diagnosed. Poor children with learning disabilities are just lumped into the "stupid poor kids" category.

    • I really hope you are right...
    • You have that backwards. People who are more well off tend to get diagnosed less frequently because they have the means to avoid such diagnoses. The poor students though, end up needing to get diagnosed and having less control over it than the well off do.

      • Re:Or perhaps... (Score:4, Insightful)

        by cdrudge ( 68377 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @10:09AM (#37934072) Homepage

        People who are more well off tend to get diagnosed less frequently because they have the means to avoid such diagnoses.

        You apparently have never been around a parent that has a ASD child. You don't "avoid such diagnoses" as avoiding them only makes life more difficult for the child as well as the parent. Depend on the degree of the ASD, it's not like other conditions where you can just live in denial and hope no one notices there might be an issue.

        • Re:Or perhaps... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 03, 2011 @11:21AM (#37935176)

          AC because I don't remember my login credentials and lost the associated email address years ago. If someone can mod this up to at least 1 or 2 so people can see it, I'd appreciate it.

          I am an engineer, my wife is an astronomer. We have an ASD child. Around 18 months we definitely noticed odd behaviors, all red flags. She wouldn't respond to her name. She'd line up objects of the same color. She'd stack identical objects precisely, not the typical stacking you see from toddlers. She'd walk on the balls of her feet. Her speech was delayed. She wouldn't make eye contact. She'd arch her back away from hugs or other physical contact.

          The initial diagnosis was PDD-NOS, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. Our daughter's behavior didn't map precisely to an autism diagnosis, but she was on the spectrum. I will readily admit that I did not want that diagnosis. I wanted someone to tell me that my daughter was just a late bloomer, that the language delay was because we are a bilingual household, that all of the autistic behaviors weren't really autistic. It threw us into a very unfamiliar world of speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, insurance coverage, insurance denials, out of pocket expenses, sensory integration equipment, weighted vests, sleep disruptions ... the list goes on.

          It's not easy. Sometimes I feel sympathy for the parents of neurologically atypical kids when they say "sometimes I wish my child just had cancer" because that's something that can hopefully be treated, hopefully be cured, as opposed to having to wrap your brain around the fact that your child is autistic, and you just. don't. know. if she'll ever be able to live independently, if she'll be able to be a productive member of society, if she'll be able to tell you that she loves you.

          I didn't seek out the diagnosis. I didn't want her to get one at first, but it's true that having one has made it easier to open doors to certain treatment options. It's also closed other doors to certain treatment options -- "Oh, we only cover 20 occupational therapy visits per year, but none for developmental disabilities, and we consider spectrum disorders developmental issues, so ... yeah, sucks to be you!"

          It's been over a year since that dx, and since then, thanks to aggressive early intervention we're seeing improvements. My wife has put her career on hold to devote herself full-time to this -- the window of opportunity is closing, and we're fortunate that this was caught early on, so we need to make the most of these early years -- and spends her days dealing with children's hospitals, therapists, early education from the school district, sleep specialists, insurance companies who give you a different answer every time you call. The last time we saw the developmental pediatrics specialist, he changed the diagnosis to high functioning autism. We're making progress but it'll be with us forever.

          Still, when I can get a "papa, up" from her as I lift her into her bed, I tell myself that hopefully it'll be ok.

          • by JazzLad ( 935151 )
            I wish I had mod points; the only thing I have is Karma so hopefully my reply (while otherwise lacking in merit) will attract a little attention to your post. Well written & certainly tugged at my heartstrings. I have friends with ASD children, none of them are cases where they simply don't know how to parent and just pump them full of drugs either. I suspect those are an extreme minority.

            If anything, the fact that the parents referred to in the story and yourself are successful simply means you are
          • by stungod ( 137601 )

            My daughter was diagnosed with PDD-NOS a year ago and turns 3 in January. She's adopted, so I don't know if her birth parents were "smart" or "geeky" but I can second everything else here. My wife and I are smart and geeky, respectively.

            After talking with a lot of doctors and specialists over the past year, my feeling is not so much that the incidence of ASD is higher as much as it is that we're identifying it better now. But there are two things I know for sure: that early, intensive intervention is ext

      • by Surt ( 22457 )

        That's definitely not true. Your child's best chance in life is to get enormously expensive therapy, which requires either diagnosis or a lot of money (like top 2% money). For everyone but that top 2%, fighting to get a diagnosis is a must. The poor are left undiagnosed because it costs the insurance companies a lot of money, so they push back with the doctors hard.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rhakka ( 224319 )

      or it's environmental, and things that more affluent professionals are exposed to in their work or choose for their lifestyle is to blame. Lack of Vitamin D from working indoors. toxic components in electronics. whatever... the indoor built environment most engineers/medical personnel or the like is used to is simply FULL of new, offgassing, toxic components on a fairly regular basis.... especially if they like buying new stuff at home too. New Car smell? New couch, desk chair, pressboard desk, carpeti

      • Mod parent up. There is no scientific data to his theory but it's a theory that's worthy of gathering new bits of scientific data.
        • by rwv ( 1636355 )
          I should have said "his or her" theory - thus perpetuating the myth that everybody posting on technology blogs is a "him".
      • by rhakka ( 224319 )

        to whoever modded me as a troll, Go buy a new plastic rolling chair mat sometime. Throw it under your desk. If you don't get a sore throat on the first day, working a regular day on it, send me your address and I'll send you $20 toward the cost of the mat. I am AMAZED at the level of toxins we tolerate normally.

      • by Surt ( 22457 )

        Whoever modded this troll is crazy.

        The other really obvious candidate theory not discussed, though, is age (of the father and the mother) at conception, which is a known factor already, and obviously connected with education, which geeks tend to get a lot of.

  • I've met lots of geeks and don't have any children, autistic or otherwise. Am I doing it wrong?

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:40AM (#37933630)

    If a kid was socially awkward, we just called them shy or socially awkward (or geek and dorkwad on the pejorative side). Now every kid who isn't happy all day and whistling zippidty-do-da out his ass 24-7 has some kind of disorder. Not to dismiss those who legitimately have real autism (and they are out there), but all this "My kid has autism spectrum disorder/Asperger's," etc. shit has gotten ridiculous. Between that and all these ADHD kids (we called that hyperactive or just "rebellious" when I was a kid), these kids are so doped-up that I'm amazed they can even walk upright. Christ, NOBODY took medication when I was in school (except for one diabetic kid we had). And I don't recall meeting a single kid that had a "peanut allergy" before a public hysteria began over it.

    Now get off my lawn!!

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      And I don't recall meeting a single kid that had a "peanut allergy" before a public hysteria began over it.

      Yeah, that's because they all died when they ate their first peanut butter & jelly sandwich.

      • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *

        Yeah, that's because they all died when they ate their first peanut butter & jelly sandwich.

        I'm pretty sure someone would have noticed that pattern long before the 90's.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday November 03, 2011 @09:54AM (#37933856)

      When I was a kid 24.679 years ago I had 4 kids in my 9am class with special needs, 2 in my 10 am class, 6 in my 11 am class, and 5 in my noon class. I had an average of 4.25 kids with special needs in my classes. There was only a 0.003% mention of incidence of autism on a daily sliding window basis but that didn't matter because we all got the same number of pencils, exactly 1 per week for the school year for 36 weeks of school, but on leap years we didn't get an extra 0.00555 pencils which I thought was wrong, nor did anyone take into account the total length of carbon trace each of us used or the exact pressure each of used pushed with.

      When I was a kid we didn't have autism.

    • And I don't recall meeting a single kid that had a "peanut allergy" before a public hysteria began over it.

      The predominant method of roasting peanuts changed in the 80's to a faster, higher-temperature process that changes the protein profile of the resulting peanut products. Most people don't seem to have a problem with this.

      I don't know of a good study comparing the two (or how one could ethically design such a study).

      • Wow, that's an incredibly interesting fact. The only ethical way of doing such a study is to grab a large sample of people who are not known to have a peanut allergy. Then, when people in each group have a reaction, it's not your fault.

        • Best to include a control group in your study that would expose subjects to the "old way" of roasting peanuts, whatever that is. Then we'd know for sure. :)
    • I don't recall meeting a single kid that had a "peanut allergy" before a public hysteria began over it.

      It's a real thing. I have a cousin who runs a day care and she says that the number of kids she deals with who are allergic to peanuts has exploded from practically nothing in the last 5-10 years. She says if some of them even smell a peanut they could go into a coma.

      Me and my friends ate tons of peanuts when we were kids, and never heard of peanut allergies...

      • Saying they could go into a coma is not the same thing as actually going into a coma. I'm sure there are kids (actually parents) that think they're allergic, but are exposed every day. My first grader brings peanut butter & jelly sandwiches to lunch weekly, as do many other kids. None of the kids are 'careful' not to wave their sandwiches around - hell they throw food like kids do. No one's ever had a coma, or any freaking reaction whatsoever.

    • They really didnt separate them out from other slow learners. Now there is a chance you can develop targeted therapies then like iPad communicators shown on 60 Minutes.
    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      Re: the peanut allergy: that was because in your day, they were all dead already.

      • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) *

        As I told an earlier poster, I'm pretty sure a pattern of kids dropping dead after trying peanut butter for the first time would have been spotted *long* before the 90's. When a kid dies suddenly, doctors and medical examiners make a pretty major effort to find out why.

        • by Surt ( 22457 )

          SIDS is still a big mystery, but since they started restricting peanut allergens in schools, the rate has dropped by about half.

    • by ildon ( 413912 )

      When I was in elementary school in the late 80s/early 90s, there were usually 0-2 kids (out of 30-35) in my class each grade that had to take some kind of medicine for hyperactivity. At least one of them I remember specifically it was pretty clear when he hadn't taken his medicine that he literally couldn't sit still in his chair.

    • We didn't have them when I was a kid, either, but that is a sad and unfortunate thing.

      In decades and centuries past, many disorders were not understood, not diagnosed and just attributed to stupidity, or rebelliousness, or negative character traits. Those people just failed or succeeded as best they could on their own -- mostly they failed. In the case of allergies many of them just died.

      These disorders are fundamentally no different from, say, presbyopia. They have a mixture of congenital and enviro

  • At a recent speaking engagement, Temple Grandin (who knows a thing or two about autism) said that Steve Jobs was definitely "an Aspy" and that there are many more in Silicon Valley but she won't use their names because they're still alive.
    • by CODiNE ( 27417 )

      Steve more likely had the ADD/Aspergers overlap than being only an Aspy.

      There's sometimes misdiagnosis with ADD and Aspergers as certain types can look very similar while having completely different root causes.

      • by Surt ( 22457 )

        It's not really a problem of misdiagnosis, it's a problem of poorly defined categories. That's why it's now all headed for being described as 'the spectrum'. The reality is, we don't understand the root cause well enough for any diagnosis to be definitive, it's all about trying to best label the observed behaviors in order to effectively (usefully) categorize these kids into treatment bins.

    • I had mononucleosis once, does that mean I am now qualified to diagnose it in others? A hallmark of the autism spectrum is difficulty communicating - Steve Jobs, seriously?

      • by Surt ( 22457 )

        I had mononucleosis once, does that mean I am now qualified to diagnose it in others?

        Realistically, yes.

  • I've heard that older fathers are more likely to have kids with autism (think it was on the news), and isn't it more likely that a man with a lengthy education get kids later? And it maybe takes the nerdiest ones a bit longer to find a mate... (Like me)
    • I think you may be right about that. Age of the parents is certainly a factor in other developmental disorders. My parents (who both had a long education, my mother got a Masters and my father is an MD) waited until their mid and late 30s to have children. One of my sisters ended up having Downs syndrome. Their experience is not unique; statistically, older parents are more likely to have children with Down syndrome. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a similar situation with autism.
    • Men are constantly making new sperm were as a woman only has one set of eggs at birth that age over time. That's why you can graph genetic problems with children along a curve as women age when they have a baby. A women's prime is anywhere from 16 years to 25 years of age. Unfortunately, because we live longer and have careers, women push motherhood well into their 30s and beyond. It's a rather recent phenomenon in human history.

    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      Mod parent up. Studies have shown strong correlation with age of the father. It's an obvious explanation that should have been tackled by this article if they wanted any credibility.

  • So the guys claim is only backed by his own research while two other studies had opposite results. I think we shoudln't jump to any conclusions just yet.

  • Non-geeks should bang geeks so they can have kids who are just plain smart.
  • by symes ( 835608 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @10:00AM (#37933934) Journal

    ... to give it it's proper name. Basically, people with similar behaviours end to seek out each others company. For example, heavy drinking smokers will probably find themselves at the bar or outside in smokers' alley. Similarly, ability to survive economically will determine where people can live. If some of these behaviours are genetically determined then they are also more likely to reproduce and so lead to a concentration of those genetic predispositions. But, and this is the bit but, there's a very thin thread between genes and complex behaviours, despite what you might read in the papers. There is a breathtaking array of interactions between, for example, genes and environment in producing behaviour and that are far from being properly inderstood that Baron-Cohen's thesis is, to put it mildly, overinterpreting the available evidence.

  • Marry the cheerleader (football captain). That is all.

  • by redelm ( 54142 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @10:14AM (#37934144) Homepage

    Look -- there _has_ to be some downside to intelligence. Neuroses, depression, whatever. Otherwise, the entire human race would have self-selected for some higher intelligence level than IQavg=98 sd=15 .

    There has been more than enough evolutionary time to estabilsh equilibria during the agriculture phase (5ky), probably also during the industrial phase (150y), but not yet enough during the info phase (50y).

    • Depends on what you mean by downside. Intelligence might have only upsides for the individual, but unless it promotes reproduction, it won't be reinforced by evolution.

      The "downside" might simply be that intelligent people have more interesting things to do than breed like bunnies.
      • I think that's it exactly. There's a well-known inverse relationship between education level and number of offspring.
        • by redelm ( 54142 )
          Evolution isn't just about numbers of offspring, it is more about numbers of grandchildren. Quality matters.
      • by Lifyre ( 960576 )

        More intelligent individuals are also more likely to innovate and find better ways to flourish which would encourage breeding unless there is a downside to the additional intelligence that would counteract that benefit and ultimately inhibit breeding.

    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      You understand that IQavg = 100, and that it's normalized, right? That 100 is average not because that's how smart people are, but because that's how smart people were when they normalized it?

      • by redelm ( 54142 )
        Yes, IIRC IQ was normed at 100 (and spanned at sd=15) in the 1940s based on US GI testing. Averages have drifted slightly down, but sd has not changed.
        • Yes, IIRC IQ was normed at 100 (and spanned at sd=15) in the 1940s based on US GI testing. Averages have drifted slightly down, but sd has not changed.

          Uh, no. IQ is continuously normalized such that 100 is always the average, and the adjustments that need to be made have always and consistenly been to compensate for a rise in IQ, not a decrease. It's called the Flynn effect []

          One of the explanations for it is that, even though IQ tests try to be as culture neutral as possible, as education improves, people are more familiar with the type of questions in an IQ tests and as a result become better at answering them.

  • by formfeed ( 703859 ) on Thursday November 03, 2011 @10:18AM (#37934202)

    Geeks are not more likely to have autistic kids.
    - but there is a very high probability that they will have kids that are indistinguishable from autistic kids.

  • Engineer + engineer = autisim. Artist + artist = ADHD or bipolar or just plain nuts (my family.) Engineer + artist = gifted kid.

    Too bad who you fall in love with has nothing to do with personality types or abilities.
  • That's the conclusion, folks. Therefore, Julieanne Hough must dump Ryan Seacrest and date me. Julianne, call me.

  • From my experience, the more Conservative the family, the higher chance they will have an autistic kid. All of the people with autism that I have known came from very religious and conservative families. Of course, that is from my limited perspective in a conservative area of the country.
    • Also, they tend to be cat people. How many autistic kids grew up with a big, messy, in-your-face dog? Dogs are better at discerning human emotion than most people, some of that has to rub off.
    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      If you live in a conservative area, then it's probably explained by sampling bias. SV is very, very liberal, and has the highest diagnosis rate in the country (for whatever reason).

  • For crying out loud. How many times do we see this? I think it has to do with more educated people being older when they have their first child and nothing to do with their personality.

    • by Surt ( 22457 )

      Mod parent up. This is a much more obvious, and proven explanation that needs to be discounted by any competing theory, and wasn't in this case.

  • ...that engineers are smarter than doctors. Well, we all knew that.

  • First, there are more than one type of autism. And they may have different kind of causes and even multiple triggers. Second, in Asperger syndrome cases they found out that elevated levels of testosterone during pregnancy can cause Asperger, especially with male embryos.

    Another aspect is, the more people look for a special dysfunction, the more they find. This is one cause why there are more autistic kids found in academic families then elsewhere. Especially mild cases of autism are not recognized by teache

  • On the plus side, it could result in more software QA people [].
  • When discussing the supposed link between autism and the Bay Area, perhaps people should consider that it is a giant pit of mercury. During the Gold Rush "quicksilver" mines sprung up everywhere, particularly in South Bay/Santa Clara (i.e., Silicon Valley). The mercury was also haplessly spread around in the gold mining process. To this day, there are signs all over the place---parks, hiking trails, creeks, etc.---warning of mercury contamination. But before modern regulations, Silicon Valley was a giant or

When you are working hard, get up and retch every so often.