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Are Geeky Couples More Likely to Have Kids with Autism?

Children of scientists and engineers may inherit genes that not only confer intellectual talents but also predispose them to autism

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In 1997 my colleague Sally Wheelwright and I conducted a study involving nearly 2,000 families in the U.K. We included about half these families because they had at least one child with autism, a developmental condition in which individuals have difficulty communicating and interacting with others and display obsessive behaviors. The other families had children with a diagnosis of Tourette's syndrome, Down syndrome or language delays but not autism. We asked parents in each family a simple question: What was their job? Many mothers had not worked outside the home, so we could not use their data, but the results from fathers were intriguing: 12.5 percent of fathers of children with autism were engineers, compared with only 5 percent of fathers of children without autism.

Likewise, 21.2 percent of grandfathers of children with autism had been engineers, compared with only 2.5 percent of grandfathers of children without autism. The pattern appeared on both sides of the family. Women who had a child with autism were more likely to have a father who had been an engineer—and they were more likely to have married someone whose father had been an engineer.

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