Simon Baron-Cohen: Scientists more likely to have kids with Autism
    By Hank Campbell | November 3rd 2011 12:01 PM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Autism diagnoses may have officially jumped the shark when being smart, organized and antisocial is 'on the spectrum' - basically, 65% of the population can be qualified and a whole lot more in science and engineering.

    Writing in Nature, Lizzie Buchen outlines how the idea that the parents of autistic children, and the children themselves, have an aptitude for understanding and analysing predictable, rule-based systems came to be; the genes that endow parents with minds suited to technical tasks  could lead to autism when passed on to their children, especially when combined with a dose of similar genes from a like-minded mate.  And how Simon Baron-Cohen promoted the idea.

    It has an air of truthiness, as Simon Baron-Cohen always does, and it is probably a realistic premise if you have no clue about biology.

    What famous scientist isn't (or wasn't) autistic when the criteria become so broad?  I can't think of any.  The downside is that while it gets headlines for Baron-Cohen, it does a real disservice to parents who are dealing with children who have real autism but who will be increasingly regarded as engaging in faddish pop psychology diagnoses.

    The problem is the same thing we see in too many psychology studies that draw conclusions; they use self-reported surveys.  So people can object to concerns that psychology in the last few decades lacks the rigor to be called science, but it would sure help if they would continue to hold famous people in psychology accountable to using scientific rigor.

    Scientists and autism: When geeks meet - by Lizzie Buchen published online 2 November 2011, Nature 479, 25-27 doi:10.1038/479025a

    Comments

    IF autism and Asperger's Syndrome are genetic in nature, then it would be reasonable to assume that it is heritable.
    IF autism and AS are heritable, one might expect to see the genes expressed early in development.
    Two unrelated studies have come out recently which suggest effects at the earliest stages of fetal development.
    One researcher has discovered that among the autistic children in her practice, 100% of the children had a weird quirk of the lungs; the bronchi branched off in doublets, which were smaller in diameter than normal children, whose bronchi branched off singly.
    Another large and well-designed study looked for facial/cranial differences in the autistic. It is well known that several other genetic or fetal trauma syndromes have distinctive facial characteristics- William's, Down's and fetal alcohol syndrome for example.
    The study used 3D cameras and software analysis to determine that the faces of the autistic were indeed consistently different, with wide set eyes on a wide face, a wide mouth, and a relative shorter distance between the philtrum and the eyebrows. Within this group the study also was also able to distinguish between those with essential autism and those with AS.
    There are other observations out there of autism clusters which suggest heritability. Silicon Valley and Rochester MN have clusters of high autism rates. (It may not be just IBM computer nerds in Rochester either; Rochester is full of women who can pass rigorous chemistry and pharmacy courses- nurses at Mayo Clinic.) (There is also a lot of nurse-engineer assortive mating going on at land grant colleges in the Midwest.)
    A recent study in the Netherlands, carefully done with proper controls and balances also found a higher incidence of autism in their high-tech region compared to the non-tech region.
    But when you walk into an engineering office, it is not just "smart, organized and antisocial"-- there is also toe-walking, people who startle so easily they are clearly not normal, the clumsiness of people who have no sense of body space and of course, the classic "egg-head"- the heads of autistic nerds really are larger with respect to their body and faces.