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Students with Autism more likely to be drawn to STEM subjects

BySophia Bashir

Nov 24, 2015

According to a recent study, those working in the Stem professions (science, technology,  engineering and mathematics) are more likely to display autistic tendencies than people with less technical occupations. The results of the study also confirm a long held belief that males are more likely to have autism than females. Autism is a developmental condition, characterised by a difficulty in communication and language processing. It is called a ‘spectrum disorder’ as there are varying degrees of severity in symptoms; for example, a very mildly affected individual may be able to lead a reasonably independent life. This research, developed by scientists at the University of Cambridge, was carried out using a short questionnaire, called the ‘Autistic Spectrum Quotient’.

Perhaps it is rather unsurprising that workers in the Stem fields were more likely to be diagnosed with autism. These professions require a ‘systems thinking mind’, and are traditionally associated with logic and reason. Already taken by nearly half a million members of the public, the questionnaire assesses a person’s reaction to 50 statements, examples of which include: “I find it hard to make new friends” and “new situations make me anxious”, to determine whether they have the distinct personality traits associated with autism. The premise of the questionnaire is simple: a higher score equals a higher likelihood of being autistic, or at least somewhere on the spectrum. However, researchers were also keen to stress that the test is merely indicative, rather than diagnostic. Dr Carrie Allision from the Cambridge investigation team has said: “[It] is a valuable research instrument”, but underlined that “a high score alone is not a reason to seek help.”

It would seem, given the large number of participants and a result which confirms existing research, that plenty of people in the scientific community are ready to take this data as conclusive evidence. Emily Ruzich, a PhD student at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre who was in charge of analysing the results, seemed positive about the outcome, saying: “I am pleased that such big data was available to test these questions. They provide clear evidence that autistic traits are sex-linked and Stem-linked.” She went on to add that the wider effects of this study may be better funded research into autism and “why these associations are seen”.

There was a distinct difference between the average score for males (21.6) compared to females (19.0). However, the exact reasoning for this discrepancy is unclear. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who led the study, has suggested that pre-natal levels of testosterone play a key role. Males naturally produce more of this hormone, even in the womb. This theory confirms the results of a prior study in 2009, which demonstrated that four year olds were more likely to display autistic traits if exposed to higher levels of testosterone in utero. It would seem that there is increasingly convincing evidence that this hormone is a key factor in the development of autism.

As mentioned before, this information is not new; it is well known that males are more likely to have the condition, and specialist autism clinics usually report their diagnoses of boys and girls at a ratio of four to one. Hans Asperger, the Austrian paediatrician, is thought to have made a claim that girls were immune to autism in 1944. Although now clearly false, the belief that autism is an extreme of ‘male’ behaviour has persisted.

More modern theories now suggest that girls are better at hiding symptoms, potentially due in part to an increased susceptibility to social pressures. As Professor Baron-Cohen has said: “another very important theory is that we’re simply missing a lot of girls who may need a diagnosis, purely because of the methods we use to diagnose.”

In light of this, it is hopeful that this study may inspire further research into both the exact causes, and most importantly, how to improve the means of identifying autism.

Image: NASA

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