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See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 5

Autism and the Technical Mind: Live Chat with Simon Baron-Cohen, November 9, 10 A.M. EST

The children of engineers, mathematicians and other technical-minded people may be more likely to develop autism. Professor Baron-Cohen joins us to answer your questions
autism, geeky couples, abacus, head shaped abacus



Dan Saelinger

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In the November issue of Scientific American, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge explores the possibility that some of the genes that contribute to autism are inherited along with genes behind certain cognitive talents common to scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other technical-minded people. Some evidence suggests that regions around the world where a lot of engineers and scientists live and marry—such as Silicon Valley in California and Eindhoven in the Netherlands—have higher than usual rates of autism. When two technical-minded people have children, they may be more likely to have a child with autism because of the underlying genetics. To help gather data to test these ideas, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues have created a Web site where parents can report what they studied in college, their occupations and whether or not their children have autism.

Chat Transcript

ferrisjabr
Good morning everyone! I'm Ferris Jabr, one of the associate editors at Scientific American

ferrisjabr
We'll be starting the chat soon

mbloudoff
Hi everyone, I'm Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato with Scientific American. I'll be joining in the chat as well.

Summer
My name is Aaron Summer Lopez of Kansas City, Missouri

darciforrester
Hi - my name is Darci Forrester - I'm in Oklahoma

mbloudoff
Feel free to start posting questions now. We'll get started in a few minutes.

mbloudoff
Aaron, Darci -- Great to have you to chatting with us today. Looking forward to your questions.

jm_c_r
Hi my name is Josep M Im in Reus Catalonia

sbaroncohen
Hi, this is Simon Baron-Cohen. Looking forward to chatting.

ferrisjabr
Welcome to the Scientific American chat.

ferrisjabr
We'll be live for the next 30 minutes with University of Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who is an expert on

ferrisjabr
I'm Ferris Jabr, an associate editor for Scientific American, and I'll be hosting this chat.

ferrisjabr
Let's get started.

darciforrester
Hi Ferris

darciforrester
Hi Simon

ferrisjabr
Does anyone have any general questions for Professor Baron-Cohen about the genetics of autism?

darciforrester
Yes - what kind of links are there to schizophrinia

darciforrester
My husband and i both have genetic histories of it....

darciforrester
Currently, our son is undergoing a trial of Risperdal (under the watch of a neurologist), and from what I understand

darciforrester
and have read it is considered an anti-psychotic

sbaroncohen
the majority of people with autism do not have autism but they can co occur

Summer
My question was two-fold in relation to Autism and how it physiologically affects us during winter.

Summer
Which would allow me to understand more of myself because I have not been diagnosed with Autism but my doctor referred to Asbergers.

sbaroncohen
autism doesn't seem to have a seasonal component unlike some forms of depression

sbaroncohen
a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome can be useful to help a person understand why they have had difficulties

Summer
Biologically though has it ever been studied a link between higher thought in cold vs hot climates? This may be an avenue that could shed

Summer
light on demographics.

sbaroncohen
i'm not aware of any research comparing rates of autism in different climates

Summer
thank you sir.

sbaroncohen
we want to find out what the 'risk factors' are in parents to have a child with different kinds of autism

sbaroncohen
parents can help our research by going to www.cambridgepsychology.com/graduateparents

nkvenugopal
What are the common 'risk factors' that you've come across?

mbloudoff
How many parents have participated so far?

sbaroncohen
the website was only launched on november 2nd so it's too early to say

sbaroncohen
we are hoping to have thousands of parents give us information about their degrees and occupations

sbaroncohen
risk factors in parents include having a previous child with autism

sbaroncohen
but we are testing the hypothesis that scientists may have a higher rate of autism among their children

David Smith
is it true that MIT was approached to do a study like this buy declined access to alumni

sbaroncohen
It is true that we explored running this study at MIT.

sbaroncohen
the advantage of our website study is that it doesn't focus on one specific university like MIT

ferrisjabr
It might be interesting to discuss the observations related to this hypothesis

ferrisjabr
Particularly the higher rates of autism among MIT alumni, in the Silicon Valley etc

sbaroncohen
we looked at autism rates in a different 'silicon valley' in the Netherlands, called Eindhoven

sbaroncohen
we found there were more than twice as many children with autism in Eindhoven than in other Dutch cities

sbaroncohen
Eindhoven is an information technology hub

nkvenugopal
Regarding the hypothesis, does it stem from a hypthesis that scientists are borderline autistic as well?

darciforrester
do you consider autism a kind of evolution of the brain?

sbaroncohen
i think autism involves a different kind of mind and brain

sbaroncohen
evolutionary hypotheses are very difficult to test

Ornella
Are you also going to look at parents? If they have also autistic traits?

sbaroncohen
we published a study in 2010 on parents, showing they have higher levels of autistic traits

sbaroncohen
that was in the journal Molecular Autism

Ornella
Thanks I will look at the publication

ferrisjabr
Just a note for any latecomers: the chat is in full swing; feel free to post your questions

darciforrester
systemizing is very interesting to read about....

darciforrester
we have noticed how our son reacts to different situations....eg, he loves to be cuddled, and seems to empathize with

darciforrester
inanimate objects or non-human characters

sbaroncohen
i suspect that among parents or siblings of a person with autism there are higher rates of talents in systemizing

nkvenugopal
Can you explain that a little bit more? 'higher rates of talents in systemizing'?

Tamitha Mulligan Skov
It is generally known among engineers that many in the field tend toward autism anyway, regardless of intellect.

sbaroncohen
we have found fathers and grandfathers of children with autism are more likely to be engineers

sbaroncohen
systemizing is how we figure out how a system works

sbaroncohen
some systems are mathematical, some are mechanical, some are natural (like the weather)

sbaroncohen
people with autism seem to be very interested in systems because they follow rules and have predictable

sbaroncohen
and of course scientists systemize as part of their job
patterns

mbloudoff
Is it just a paternal link (fathers and grandfathers)?

darciforrester
yes, i'm curious about the paternal link as well.

sbaroncohen
we don't know if the link is just paternal - our website study should help us identify if it is maternal as well

sbaroncohen
i expect that both parents are contributing genes relevant to autism

darciforrester
do you have a close date on data collection? when will the results be published?

Sheena
My son is autistic, and my degree is in English. However, I have a great interest in science. Will your study take interests into account?

Tamitha Mulligan Skov
In engineering you often do not need well developed social skills either. Could personality play a role as well?

sbaroncohen
we haven't got questions about 'interests', only about 'degrees' and 'occupations'

sbaroncohen
our study will run for a couple of months and we will summarize the results in Scientific American

darciforrester
awesome. i'll be watching for it.

ferrisjabr
I think Sheena and Tamitha make good points. Personality and interests come into play too

ferrisjabr
Perhaps future studies will look more closely at these factors

ferrisjabr
But asking about degrees and occupations is a good way to get useful data

Heather Beresh
I think Interests would be important to include! Perhaps in a follow-up study

sbaroncohen
i agree interests of parents would be very informative

sbaroncohen
Personality is precisely what we are interested to study

sbaroncohen
A personality that is attracted to systems more than social relationships

nkvenugopal
Did the parents (or grandparents) exhibit any signs of borderline autism?

sbaroncohen
the study in Molecular Autism 2010 by Wheelwright and colleagues shows parents have higher levels of autistic traits

Rbtsfg
is it just males with autism that favour systemizing (cars, trains etc)?

Rbtsfg
how do females with autism tend to 'systemize'?

sbaroncohen
males in the population do show stronger interests in systems, on average

sbaroncohen
females with autism may systemize differently to males. this needs more research

ferrisjabr
Is it possible that systemizing in girls and women is less obvious and more difficult to detect?

nkvenugopal
Would your study also look into a correlation between 'degrees' and 'occupations' and where the child lies on the spect

sbaroncohen
we will be looking at parental degrees/occupations and child outcome on the autistic spectrum

Heather Beresh
Glad you are doing this research though - I've been curious about this for some time now. My family would fit your criteria for sure!

Sheena
I think girls systemize less obviously. That is why so many girls may live with undiagnosed Asperger's syndrome for instance.

Rbtsfg
perhaps less obvious to those 'looking' for male-pattern traits?

sbaroncohen
i think you're right that systemizing in females may be harder to detect

sbaroncohen
in what way might girls systemize less obviously?

sbaroncohen
the topic of autism in girls has had very little scientific attention and is very important

Tamitha Mulligan Skov
You will definitely find a positive correlation. Autistic people are drawn to science fields requiring little public speaking.

mbloudoff
Fantastic chat everyone. We have about five minutes left. Any last questions for Dr. Baron-Cohen?

ferrisjabr
I'll just make a few quick points

ferrisjabr
Tamitha, I think that is an interesting nuance. Perhaps some scientists on..

ferrisjabr
the more 'severe' end of the spectrum stay out of the spotlight

Heather Beresh
do you think autism is related to not filtering stimulus but rather taking it all in and storing it for later sorting and analysis?

sbaroncohen
some people will be aware that DSM-5 plans to remove the term 'Asperger Syndrome' as a diagnosis

Tamitha Mulligan Skov
Are the statistics lower for girls in science and engineering fields due to less women in science?

darciforrester
what are your views on the dsm-5 changes?

ferrisjabr
Yes that's another important issue. The results from the DSM-5 Field Trials are currently being published

Heather Beresh
if so, this would be an excellent skill for scientists!

sbaroncohen
i think this is key - people with autism do tend to have difficulties filtering what information is relevant

darciforrester
from my understanding it can still be written in the notes...

Summer
sytemizing through language rather than science or math is definitely going to be less noticeable.

darciforrester
personally, i think it's great.

ferrisjabr
Some people are worried that some people with autism may be excluded from diagnosis

Summer
more noticable rather. lol

ferrisjabr
Simon do you have thoughts about the new DSM-5 definition of autism spectrum disorder?

darciforrester
i have seen first hand what is considered 'classical' autism vs. aspergers, and to me it is a whole other ballgame.

Heather Beresh
so then, giving them tool to learn better ways of sorting and analysing information should be a focus

sbaroncohen
on the plus side, DSM-5 does highlight that autism is a spectrum

sbaroncohen
DSM-5 is also prompting scientists to start testing for differences between subgroups

darciforrester
i think that people will still be diagnosed, but more correctly.

Heather Beresh
it would turn a deficit into a strength

darciforrester
i'm curious to see what the prevalence will be with the new definitions.

sbaroncohen
most important to diagnosis is not the label but what the person's needs are

sbaroncohen
it's been a pleasure chatting with you all

ferrisjabr
Okay everyone we're getting ready to wrap things up

sbaroncohen
sorry if i've not managed to reply to all the comments

darciforrester
exactly :) it's just a label.

ferrisjabr
Thanks so much to everyone for participating and for all your questions

Paul Wolf
Food for thought in Psychology!

darciforrester
thank you for your chat :)

mbloudoff
Thank you to Dr. Baron-Cohen for joining us on Scientific American's live chat. And thanks to Ferris Jabr who set this up.

sbaroncohen
you're welcome. hope you enjoyed the article

David Smith
thanks

David Smith
very interesting

ferrisjabr
If anyone has any last questions you can send them to me on twitter

ferrisjabr
Bye for now!

Tommy Gilbertson
fantastic insight! finally we are getting glimmers of an answer to autism. continue this line of research at all costs!

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