A New Theory Attributes the Rise of Autism to How People Marry

Is the rise in autism due to who you marry?

An interesting new theory on why there has been such a dramatic rise in diagnosed cases of children with autism, particularly Asperger’s, is being covered in Time magazine this week. It theorizes that more children are being born in the autistic spectrum because people with certain autistic traits are more likely to meet, marry and reproduce than in past generations.

Introduced by Simon Baron-Cohen (who happens to be the cousin of Sasha Baron-Cohen, of Borat fame), a neuroscientist and leading autism researcher, the theory of  “assortative mating”  is based on anecdotal evidence, speculation, and what appears to be a pretty common-sense assessment of various societal trends.

Baron-Cohen noted in the late 1990’s that a shared cognitive profile (tendency toward “systemizing” (focusing on systems and how they work) and a notable lack of empathy) could be found among people with autism and, to a lesser extent, their relatives.

As reported by Judith Warner, Baron-Cohen had “begun to theorize that this sort of brain type would be common in any population that brought people with very strong math, science and tech skills to cluster together — and to think that if these high systemizers were choosing one another as mates, they might be particularly likely to have autistic children.”

Basically, what it comes down to is that as more women are going into the fields of science, math, and technology than ever before and because people within the autistic spectrum are drawn to those fields, it is only natural that more couples where both the male and female carry autistic characteristics that would be passed on to their children. One of the anecdotal pieces drawn from is an observation that it is unusually common among alumni of MIT to have children diagnosed with Asperger’s. Another cites a study that found children in the Dutch city of Eindhoven, considered to be their Silicon Valley, two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children in similar cities that aren’t so tech-centric.

The results are still “preliminary” and Baron-Cohen cautions against drawing simple conclusions from his work. He states, “It’s very easy to become alarmist and cause panic. It can be dangerous.”

I’m very interested to see where this study will take us and what other components are found to factor in. His theory seems very common-sense, but also edging toward uncomfortable if you keep taking the logical steps of progression. Sure, it’s easy to see (and say), well, of course, if two people with autistic traits get married they are likely to have autistic children. But what does that mean to future couples looking to conceive? Is it cause for the alarm Baron-Cohen cautions against or just something interesting to think about?

Photo credit: © Igor Kolos –