Autism: The Result of Math Whiz X 2?

If you’re Jenny McCarthy, you blame autism on vaccinations. If you’re Michael Savage, you blame it on a decline in Yiddish Billingsgate among fathers. Now, if you’re Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen — yes, cousin of Sacha, the genius behind Ali G., Borat and Bruno — you believe it might result from interbreeding among members of the techie family.

Previous studies, reports the UK’s Daily Mail, have shown high rates of autism among “‘systemisers’ – those who do jobs relating to systems and how they work, such as computer programmes or machines.” Indeed, a 1997 study showed “children and grandchildren of engineers were more likely to be on the autistic spectrum.” In Silicon Valley, where there are “high rates of partnership,” as the Mail delicately puts it, among mathematicians, physicists and engineers, “cases of autism have skyrocketed.”

Baron-Cohen plans to study whether two parents who work in science, technology, engineering and math are more likely to produce children with an “autism spectrum diagnosis” than couples in which one or neither partner works in these fields. He expects to publish the results in 12 months.

Just a few days ago, funnily enough, an ex-girlfriend wrote to tell me she’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. (Can I joke here that my own tests came back clean? No? Okay, never mind.) It’s an extremely mild form of autism, often — and in her case, quite observably — associated with high intelligence. She told me the diagnosis had cleared up what had seemed like unanswerable questions — her slowness to get certain jokes, for example, and certain quirks in her body language. What can I say? My moonblind eyes hadn’t noticed. And if she never got my jokes, she was at least polite enough to giggle nervously at them.

What I do remember observing quite clearly, though, is that she was what any British researcher worth his received pronunciation would be pleased to call a systemiser. An accountant, an ace grammarian and a champion housekeeper, she could have systemized pigeon droppings. Her father, I seem to recall, was a theologian, and nobody can get more systemic than that. Could the Angelic Doctor, the Great Ox himself, have passed a Sally-Anne test? I wouldn’t bet my cappa on it.

It’s a shame she and I didn’t last long enough to generate any data for Baron-Cohen’s study. Both sides of my family have yet to produce anything that could, even in pitch darkness, be mistaken for a systemiser. Trace them back to bar-Giora and Fingal, respectively, and you’ll find nothing but moody aesthetes and socially irresponsible fantasists. One of my grandfathers, who turned on to Miles Davis when every other ofay in suburbia was listening to Mantovanni, won acclaim for ranting in inspired freestyle whenever President Eisenhower addressed the nation over TV. The other grandfather, having made his nut selling insurance, reinvented himself as a retired cardiologist and lived out his days dispensing free medical advice to the snowbirds of Ft. Lauderdale.

I should put my picture and family tree in a catalog and send it off to MIT: “CHECK ME OUT, XKCD FANGIRLS: DNA AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST.”

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  • jkm

    It’s conclusions like this (well, and being a Libra) that make me skeptical of most research claiming causation of anything. Couldn’t the higher incidence of ASD among the children of couples who are systematizers be just as likely an indicator that the parents themselves are on the autism spectrum and were drawn to their professions because this was an arena in which they were comfortable? Are the parents themselves being tested? I know, I know, I should read the original study. That’s what I tell everybody else who makes arguments based on the distilled headline.

    And I diagnosed myself with Asperger’s a while ago. It makes sense. I am obsessive about knowing everything there is to know about subjects in which I am interested (which, sadly, in my case includes Everything) and am utterly clueless about relationships. Neither of my parents finished high school, but my mother was a natural math whiz who worked as a head cashier for a department store and could locate balancing errors like a boar sniffing out truffles, and my father had a very elaborate system for keeping track of his horseracing bets.

    In the end, we humans are all systematizers. It’s what makes us yearn to find causation for the mysteries that delight us or break our hearts.

  • Liz P

    While a tiny percentage of individuals might possibly come by their autism genetically, the vast majority have suffered an accumulation of toxicity courtesy of environmental insult.
    This is just another red herring to attempt to pacify the masses and encourage them to follow the lemmings to slaughter. My child with severe autism was born to an HVAC worker and a young woman who does not have any special mathmatical ability. Neither was over 22, so her autism was not a result of parental age. My daughter did not watch television as an infant, so tv did not cause her condition. It is not especially rainy or cloudy in Florida, and my daughter has always had reasonable outside time, so it was not lack of sunshine that caused her autism. My daughter’s mother did not use drugs while pregnant, so her autism is not a result of drug use. My daughter’s mother did not have multiple ultrasounds, so this is not the cause of her autism.
    My daughter DID receive too many toxic vaccinations between birth and two years of age; at 4 months of age, post-vaccination, she ended up at the hospital with a serious neurological event, she will never be the healthy, strong child I brought to the pediatrician for those vaccines, again. VACCINATIONS are the cause of her global developmental delay, epilepsy, hippocampal sclerosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, hypotonia, autoimmunity to her own myelin, GI dysfunction, and more — AKA Autism.
    Vaccines contain known poisons: mercury (in amounts ranging from 0.3 mcg to 25 mcg), massive bolus of aluminum (known neurotoxin), formaldehyde, msg, carcinogenic antibiotic (polymyxin B and neomycin), and polysorbate 80, to name a few.
    Further, vaccines contain egg, beef, dairy, soy, corn, phenol, tissue from chickens, monkeys, cows and even and DNA from humans. If the body does what the vaccine-movement expects it to, it mounts a reaction not only to the virus injected, but also all the additional “excipients.” (find the CDC listing of vaccine excipients here: Making it virtually impossible for a person to eat what is found in a grocery store because of the damage the immune system causes from ongoing exposure to food it has been taught to attack.
    Further, since the industry includes the very building blocks of out energy systems, amino acids (glutamate, cystine, tyrosine, amino acids listed generally and not specifically, and MRC-5 DNA), one might reasonably anticipate the sudden increase in mitochondrial dysfunction witnessed by myriad families also struggling with their childrens’ sudden developmental disabilities, autoimmunity, and epilepsy.
    Baron-Cohen has spent years attempting to draw public attention away from the obvious, this is simply one more effort with the same intent…

  • Caz

    I am with the hereditary explanation. I have a son with a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, his father exhibits the same behaviours, as does my husbands niece. My mother-in-law was extremely unusual and died a recluse, her brother too was unusual and diagnosed with OCD. Their father, born in the days before vaccinations, had a common Aspie food fetish – only ate certain combinations of food and in certain orders – he was also highly systematic. I have a friend whose daughter had an Aspie diagnosis – she is about to begin studying chemical engineering – her father exhibits similar traits and is a research physicist. Strangely however many of the Aspies I know marry extremely random neurotypicals (jargon for ‘non-aspie’) who compensate for them. I am totally unsystematic as are my other two children . . . possibly also an inherited trait?

  • Marie Bernadette

    The best part of this was your appealing to XKCD Fangirls. We do exist out there…and we are many.