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Last Updated: Monday, 30 January 2006, 10:54 GMT
Scientific brain linked to autism
Scientists tend to be analytical
Highly analytical couples, such as scientists, may be more likely to produce children with autism, an expert has argued.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the University of Cambridge, said the phenomenon might help explain the recent rise in diagnoses.

He believes the genes which make some analytical may also impair their social and communication skills.

A weakness in these areas is the key characteristic of autism.

It is thought that around one child in every 100 has a form of autism - the vast majority of those affected are boys.

The number of diagnoses seems to be on the increase, but some argue this is simply because of a greater awareness of the condition.

In a paper published in the journal Archives of Disease of Childhood, Professor Baron-Cohen labels people such as scientists, mathematicians and engineers as "systemizers".

They are skilled at analysing systems - whether it be a vehicle, or a maths equation - to figure out how they work.

But they also tend to be less interested in the social side of life, and can exhibit behaviour such as an obsession with detail - classic traits associated with autism.

Body of evidence

Professor Baron-Cohen argues that systemizers are often attracted to each other - and thus more likely to pass "autism" genes to their offspring.

He cited a survey of 1,000 members of the National Autistic Society which found fathers and grandfathers of children with autistic spectrum conditions are twice as likely to work in a systemizing profession.

In addition, students in the natural sciences have a higher number of relatives with autism than do students in the humanities, and mathematicians have a higher rate of autistic spectrum conditions compared with the general population.

Other research has found both mothers and fathers of children with autism score highly on a questionnaire measuring autistic traits.

Brain scan studies have also shown that mothers of autistic children often show patterns of brain activity more associated with men.

Professor Baron-Cohen said the rise in autism might be linked to the fact that it had become easier for systemizers to meet each other, with the advent of international conferences, greater job opportunities and more women working in these fields.

Richard Mills, of the National Autistic Society, said: "The society welcomes all new research, particularly that which helps us understand the nature and possible causes of autism and which may inform the support that we give to individuals.

"Over half a million people in the UK have a form of autism. It is a lifelong developmental disorder which requires specialist support."

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