Engineers, Hips, and Autism

The headline “Men who don’t find curvy women attractive ‘could father children with autism‘” sounds just too weird to pass up. I found it through Google alert on a rather curious blog “What Sorts of People.”

The entry does not comment on the title, just refers people to an article in the Daily Mail Reporter, published on January 8, 2009, with the same title as the blog entry.

A different blog, Feminist Philosophers, also mentioning the article, quotes

“Studies show that the waist-to-hip ratio of 70 per cent is what the majority of men find most attractive because it correlates strongly with good health and fertility”

and questions the “because.”

Knowing how the media have the tendency to distort the conclusions of scientific studies to make them more sensational (see, for example, the entry “Parental psychiatric disorders and children with autism“ from May 9, 2008), I went first to the actual press release, which is titled “Who we find attractive could have implications for the prevalence of autism, say researchers.”

I must say I agree with the Feminist Philosophers poster’s surprise at making an assumption that who we find attractive is strictly correlated to who we actually marry (or with whom we have children), which is what the authors of the study seem to imply. (Otherwise, they should have gone straight for assessing “the actual dimensions of parents of children with autism.”)

But I wanted more, so I found the actual article, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (J Autism Dev Disord) published by Springer.

The article, written by Drs Mark Brosnan and Ian Walker, both from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, is titled “A Preliminary Investigation into the Potential Role of Waist Hip Ratio (WHR) Preference within the Assortative Mating Hypothesis of Autistic Spectrum Disorders,” and was published in the January 2009 issue of the journal.

It is dense and somewhat tough to understand to a not-even-close-to-being-a-psychology-dr like me, but once I read it a couple of times I actually found it fascinating, because of a few points the authors raise that are not mentioned either in the Daily Mail article, or in the press release.

If I understand it correctly (and I must say I’m not sure I do), the whole point starts with assuming that there is a connection between testosterone levels in mothers and the fact that

“ASD affects somewhere between four and nine times as many males as females.”

because

“ASD’s male predominance has led to suggestions that autistic traits might be influenced by prenatal androgens, as prenatal testosterone exposure has been found to correlate with abilities associated with the triad of impairments.”

Here the article refers to three scientific articles examining androgens, fetal testosterone levels, and autistic traits.

(I had to look up what “androgens” means. Apparently androgens “stimulate or control the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics,” and the “most well-known androgen is testosterone.”)

So what I think the article says is that high or higher than typical levels of testosterone in a woman’s body while she’s pregnant might be one of the factors that could cause autism.

The second point is that

“testosterone levels in women are visibly signaled by waist-to-hip ratio (WHR: waist circumference divided by hip circumference) because testosterone causes the accumulation of fat cells around the waist.” (The typical range apparently is around 0.7-0.8.)

The hypothesis is then framed as follows

“[I]f some men were found to show a preference for higher-than-average-WHR mates, this would encourage greater prenatal testosterone exposure for these men’s offspring. Critically, if this preference were seen more than average in men with a genetic predisposition towards having children with ASD, this would make the incidence of ASD higher in a population than we would otherwise expect. Their genetic predisposition to ASD could potentially interact with the maternal genetic predisposition (passed from mother to child).”

Now, no matter how you look at it, to me statements like “a man attracted to higher-than-average waist-to-hip ratio women is likely to have a higher-than-average prenatal testosterone exposure for their offspring” do assume that the man in question will actually have “offspring” with that “higher-than-average WHR ratio” woman that he’s attracted to. I don’t think that’s necessarily true, but let’s say it is.

So what I think the researchers are saying is that just because you are a “boxy” (higher than average WHR) woman does not mean you will have a child with autism. But if you have children with a man who has a “broader autistic phenotype,” then the chance that your child with have autism is higher than average.

And now comes the interesting part, not mentioned in the Daily Mail or the press release – the “broader autistic phenotype” is apparently tied (if not equal) to a man’s “higher systemizing skills.”

Drs Brosnan and Walker refer to studies from a couple of years ago showing that

“fathers of children with ASD have been found to be overly represented within Science/Engineering disciplines”

and that there is an

“evidence associating children with autisms’ familiar over-representation in highly systemizing activities (such as engineering or mathematics).”

In plain words – the way I understand it – autism spectrum seems to run in families of engineers and other mathematically oriented professions.

(The article does not mention computer programmers or coders but I bet they are part of the group as well. I actually would expand it to include most academics overall; I’ve been working with academics for nearly fifteen years, I’ve seen some interesting “phenotypes” quite worthy of extended studies.)

That reminds me of the comment my son’s neuropsychologist made when I responded “it’s not the end of the world” when she confirmed the diagnosis of PDD-NOS – She said “Of course not! Just go and take a walk around the MIT campus!” (see the “Yes, it is PDD-NOS after all!” entry on May 2, 2008)

Laughing out loud, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is probably one of the best places in the world to find a guy with “highly systemizing skills.” By the way, I went once to a ballroom dance class at MIT – it’s heaven for girls, they get to dance all the time, and it’s the guys who have to wait for a turn! (And no, it’s not where I met my husband, but he is good at systemizing. And no, I will not publicize my WHR.)

So again, a “boxy” woman will not necessarily have a child with autism just because she’s less curvy, and a scientist will not necessarily have a child with autism because he’s good at math, but if the two have children, then the chance that their first born male child will have autism is greater than average, especially if the guy was not a first-born himself.

(Oh, yeah – here are a couple more interesting nuggets not mentioned in the press release or the article – Apparently “engineers have relatively more sons than daughters.” Also, “the risk of ASD is higher in first-borns.” And there also seems to be a pattern “of children with ASD being firstborns to fathers who were not firstborn themselves.”)

What about “boxy” women who are scientists marrying their fellow scientist colleagues? I’m sure someone will study that soon (if they haven’t already).

And what I’d like to know is whether all women in the photographs used in the study, those with average WHR and those with higher than average, were equally well endowed in the “bosom department.” Yeah, I know guys look at the “WHR” but I think those measurements also play a big role (otherwise there wouldn’t be such a big market for implants). Although naturally big err.. cup size, probably has something to do with testosterone and estrogen levels as well, so in the end it probably doesn’t matter.

Comments

  1. I was also intrigued by the finding that the men who fathered autistic children had more sons (the sample was set up, IIRC, to ensure that both groups were more or less equally matched in terms of systematizing — the control group was recruited from the faculty of a science-and-technology-centered university), although the number of families surveyed was waaay too small to generalize from.

    Anecdotally, my mom has also observed this about autistic children tending to have engineers for fathers. When we lived in Iowa, about fourteen years ago, we were fairly active in the autism society there, so we met a fair number of other families with autistic children. My mom tells me that a whole lot of them (just like our family) had engineer fathers and nurse mothers. My mom hypothesized that the fathers were sub-clinically autistic themselves, and needed wives who would take care of them a bit more than the average man needs his wife to take care of him.

    (I am a boxy woman, with a degree in science — biochemistry — and an autism-spectrum diagnosis. My partner also has a degree in science — he’s ABD in paleontology — but is not autistic, although he does seem to have many of the traits. We do not want children, but if we did, there’d probably be a decent chance of one being autistic.)

  2. My engineering student friends and I are pretty of disgusted with the name-o-philia in psychology these days. Isn’t it just a little more sensible to say “hey, some people are highly systematic thinkers and this seems to correlate to some other behavior traits, but at the root of it we’re still people with different personalities, some more proficient at some things than others”? This way you can include artists and writers and everyone else involved with creating things or using their mind in their professional lives as opposed to pointing at a certain segment of the population and saying “Hey look how fucked up the engineers and scientists are lol”.

    The real worry I have about this name-o-philia is that it turns into a reinforcing cycle: parents who are told that their kids won’t ever have good social skills I guarantee you will train those poor kids to not have good social skills by excusing their every social foible with “oh forgive her she’s got autism spectrum disorder”. Look back at Einstein and Newton – two fools who quite obviously would have slotted right into “ASD” classifications. Except for the fact that they had to go to school and socialize just like everyone else.

    I argue this (in a nutshell): definitions and names are self-fulfilling (look at the fifties and all of the nervous disorders), and more damaging because they give individuals an excuse for not learning how to interact or deal in society.

  3. You being parents and all, I’m just going to nod and say your points are all valid and I grok your perspective.

    (on a different note, I didn’t start properly socializing about 19. I just had some weirdass friends until then)

  4. Thanks for the comments, Lindsay! I always love to hear from adult twice exceptionals because I find your perspectives very helpful.

    You did not mention your post about the same article on your blog, so let me do it – everyone, please go to “This should be on the list for this year’s Ig Nobels” from January 10, 2009.

    It’s interesting that your mom noticed fourteen years ago that fathers of the autistic children she knew were engineers. In the light of the study, I wonder if they were not first-borns and as such had a “broader autistic phenotype” without being autistic themselves. Among the families with children with autism that we befriended I know the profession of only a few fathers and mothers. Some of them are computer programmers (either father or mother, sometimes both), but for instance one dad is an artist – a graphic designer and a guitar player in a band. Maybe it’s the creative mind? You do have to be creative to do math and science…

    Regarding wives who take care of their husbands – I vaguely remember watching a program about a scientist who got so engrossed in his research that his wife would come to the lab with lunch and actually feed him while continued working. I do not remember the name of the guy, though… I’m very bad with names. I think if one dug deeper into the lives of great scientists and discoverers something that would turn out to be quite a pattern, although maybe not to that extreme.

    In closing, I hope that your not wanting to have children is simply because you don’t like the little brats (which I completely understand, I absolutely did not want to have children when I was in my twenties either), not because of your diagnosis, because that is not a good reason not to have children, in my opinion. I used to know a guy who has type 1 diabetes, and he said once he does not want to have children because there was a chance that the child would have diabetes as well. I don’t remember the odds, but the chance that his child would not have diabetes was actually higher. Now, I don’t know what it’s like to live with diabetes, I’m sure it’s not a bed of roses. But that guy was married, he was otherwise fairly happy with his life (or so I thought) and had lots of friends. If his mom had been told that her child would have diabetes and had decided not to have him, all of those people would have lost on not never getting to know him. Yet, he did not want to have a child, because the kid could be like him – could have diabetes. I think that’s sad because that sounded to me like he was seeing himself mainly in the light of his illness and he was so much more than “a diabetic,” and what he said also had the same ring to me as if he said “I wish I had never been born.” That is why I’m still very ambivalent about genetic testing.

  5. Thanks for your comments and I apologize for not responding immediately. Weekends are a madhouse in our family.

    On the one hand I agree with you that pointing fingers at engineers and scientists as the “weirdos” of the society is doing nothing any good and a lot of harm. People do not realize how important these “out-of-the-box” thinkers are. Where would we all be without the DaVincis, Newtons, Einsteins, Gateses, Jobses (is this a correct way to make plural from the names ending in an s by the way?), Pages, and Brins? And having studies concentrate on “phenotypes” within the science and engineering professions seem pointless. It’s not like the psychologists themselves are the “normal” bunch. (And that’s fine, it’s the ATs (atypicals) that make the world interesting.) Plus, hypothesizing that certain professions are more prone to have children with autism (which still is a very broad term, too broad if you ask me, and encompasses a huge range of symptoms) is borderline dangerous.

    On the other hand, I’m still on the fence about labels. Yes, I too get annoyed at the prevalent tendency to label and categorize everyone, at every stage of their life, measure their intelligence, personalities, interests, etc., etc. But in our case, having a “label” for our child did guarantee him services. He has had help with learning “social skills” for a couple of years now and I must say that has helped and his improvement is noticeable by people who had known him since he was little. You may ask if that is not just the matter of maturity, and some of it may be, but not entirely. It’s very hard for people to understand that someone might have a hard time learning social interactions naturally, but the fact is that our son needs to have it pointed out to him what to say (or what not to say) in certain situations and he needs practice to get it right. As Debra pointed out in her comment to “Why are white lies considered ‘politeness’“ that “There’s no reason, by the way, that people with learning disabilities can’t master these social rules. It just takes longer, and it takes a lot of motivation.” So I believe in our case the “label” is actually giving our son help in learning how to interact with people, not the opposite.

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