Are Dual-STEM Couples More Likely to Have a Child on the Autism Spectrum?

Don Tennant
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I’ve written quite a bit over the years about Asperger’s Syndrome in the IT community. It’s a topic that I’m convinced warrants frank and open discussion in order to bring about a broader understanding of this high-functioning type of autism, and why it seems to be more common among IT professionals, relatively speaking, than it is among the population as a whole.

A particularly fascinating question arising from this discussion is this: If two STEM professionals have a child, is that child more likely than he otherwise would be to have Asperger’s Syndrome?

I recently had the opportunity to discuss that question with Brian Hughes, former president of the worldwide MIT Alumni Association whose wife, Lissa, is also an MIT graduate. The Hughes’s son, Richard, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 13. In a 2003 article written for the MIT Alumni Association publication “Infinite Connection,” Hughes wrote about his son’s experience and diagnosis, and he raised the question about children of MIT grads. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

When I was president of the Alumni Association from 1999 to 2000, I spoke with alumni around the world. After discussing my son with one alumna, she realized I was also describing her daughter. I then took the opportunity, in one-on-one conversations, to broach the subject of Asperger's. My very unscientific recollection is that about a third of the time the response would be, ‘That sounds like my nephew, niece, son, daughter, granddaughter, grandson, uncle, aunt ...’ This stood in stark contrast to the ‘normal’ rate of Asperger's of about 1 in 250.

 The number of undergraduate women at MIT has increased from less than 10 percent of the entering class in 1972 to 41 percent in the academic year 2002-03. The number of MIT couples has been increasing as well—just look at the class notes! These marriages lead to children, and apparently more often than would be expected we are having ‘extraordinary children.’ Some are ‘just’ extremely gifted—a serious challenge for all concerned. Others combine their extreme intelligence with learning disorders. … Still other children are like our son, extremely gifted, but with Asperger's. Sound familiar?

I asked Hughes what he learned from the feedback he received on that article. He said he received about 30 emails from alumni:

Being good MIT alumni, they said they had X number of kids, and so many are neurotypical, so many have Asperger’s, and so many are autistic. And needless to say, everybody who responded knew somebody on the autistic spectrum. It turned out that roughly 40 percent of those responses were from dual-STEM couples. They weren’t always both MIT grads, but, for example, you’d have one who’s an MIT grad and one who’s a Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon.

In this context, Hughes brought to my attention the work of Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge in the UK, who serves as director of the university’s Autism Research Center. Specifically, Hughes cited Baron-Cohen’s research in the Netherlands, which found that Eindhoven, home of the Dutch technology giant Philips and the country’s top technical university, had a significantly higher rate of autism than two demographically similar towns that lacked the technology focus of Eindhoven. In Baron-Cohen’s words, “These results are in line with the idea that in regions where parents gravitate towards jobs that involve strong ‘systemizing,’ such as the IT sector, there will be a higher rate of autism among their children, because the genes for autism may be expressed in first degree relatives as a talent in systemizing.”

According to Hughes, Baron-Cohen is conducting research specifically related to the autism rate of children of dual-STEM couples:

Simon Baron-Cohen is trying to get a large survey instrument out into STEM academia to study this question. But his working theory is that dual-STEM couples will have  children on the autism spectrum at a higher rate than non-dual-STEM couples.

Turning to another issue, I told Hughes it had struck me that in his 2003 article, he referred to Asperger’s ‘sufferers.’ I asked him, based on his experience with Richard, what is it about Asperger’s that makes it a condition from which a person suffers. He said it boils down to the fact that the ‘social deficit’ that is characteristic of someone with Asperger’s does not come with a desire to be asocial:

They would like to be part of the group—they see other people having traditional friends, and they don’t. Richard’s social group when he was going through high school was a group of adults with whom he played Dungeons and Dragons. That was pretty sacred time for Richard, because it was his one social outlet beyond his family.

Now he’s in Cambridge, which is probably as good a place as you can be to be on the spectrum, but what has changed is the emergence of the Web. I think a lot of people on the spectrum can get a lot of social satisfaction from their online interaction—probably more than most neurotypicals, because they’re not going to miss the face-to-face as much as someone who’s neurotypical would. At least that’s my working theory on all this.

Hughes went on to explain that the fact that you’re on the spectrum does not mean you don’t love life, or you don’t want to be part of the group:

You do, but you realize you’re pretty bad at it. That’s where the suffering comes from. When Richard was young, he was not a happy camper. He didn’t know what was going on, and we didn’t know what was going on. But he was clearly not happy. It’s tough, especially in a society where everybody focuses on the social aspect of success.

We’re in a society where it’s perfectly all right to say, ‘I’m a complete math idiot, I can’t add two and two to get four’—that’s socially acceptable. But to not be a social person—that’s a failure. The people who are seen as successful are people who are perceived as charismatic individuals. And somebody with Asperger’s is unlikely to be charismatic.

All of this seems to speak to the issue of whether Asperger’s is some sort of affliction, or simply a set of atypical character traits, and I raised that issue with Hughes. He said it certainly isn’t something to be "cured," in the sense that it’s a defect:

Clearly, somebody like my son has a lot to contribute. … Now, most people would have no clue that Richard is on the [autism] spectrum on first contact—he’s learned how to interact with people. He’s basically a happy, enthusiastic guy, and that comes across. But it’s clear it has been a lot of work, and it could have been easier. I suspect these days it might be easier to find out before you’re in your teens what’s going on—kids are getting assessed earlier. The question is, what do you do about it?

Subsequent to my conversation with Hughes, I had an extraordinarily enlightening conversation with Richard, an MIT graduate himself who’s now working as a quantitative software engineer at a startup in Cambridge. I’ll share the highlights of that conversation in my next post.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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