In March 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that one in 88 children have autism. The CDC attributes this increase to better recognition by parents and doctors, but some parents and researchers wonder whether other causes and connections are causing an increase in autism cases. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has spent several years studying a possible connection between the intelligence of parents and a diagnosis of autism, but other researchers maintain that adequate data for this theory does not yet exist.
Autism and Math
Baron-Cohen’s theory is at the root of the idea that high parent IQ can lead to autism in their children. He points out that people with autism tend to be mathematical or scientific thinkers, according to an article for Nature.com. Parents who have a similar technical mind pass those genes onto their young. The article for Nature.com also points out that a common stereotype about “scientific” people is that they are smart but socially awkward, a trait at the core of autism.
Baron-Cohen has conducted a series of questionnaires for collecting evidence to support his theory. He has found students studying mathematics are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than students studying law or social sciences. Also, science and math students tended to score higher in autistic traits than individuals studying humanities or social science. In addition to Baron-Cohen’s research, Karla Van Meter conducted a study at the University of California, Davis and found “clusters” of autism in areas of Southern California born to college-educated parents. Van Meter found that highly educated parents were twice as likely to have children with autism as those parents with lower levels of education.
While research studies such as those conducted by Baron-Cohen and Van Meter do suggest a link between parental high IQ and autism, causation has yet to be determined. Critics of Baron-Cohen, according to Nature.com, point out that his research focuses mostly on high-functioning autism rather than the whole spectrum. Washington University psychiatrist John Constantino agrees that Baron-Cohen’s theories are interesting but they need more independent studies and data to back them up.
It is important for intelligent parents to avoid jumping to the conclusion that having a child with autism is inevitable. The CDC reports that boys are five times more likely than girls to have autism, and that autism happens across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups -- all of which is evidence that it has nothing to do with IQ. Still other studies have shown a possible link between parental age and risk of autism. Because many parents with high IQs might wait to have children because of higher education or careers, it could be their age rather than their IQ that caused autism. While some studies showing a correlation between autism and parents who have high IQ, not enough evidence exists to turn this theory into a fact.