Are Mothers of Children with Autism More Likely to Have Studied a STEM Degree? a Study of 2,000 Women

Friday, May 13, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
S. Baron-Cohen, P. Smith and C. Allison, Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Fathers and grandfathers of children with autism are more likely to work in the field of engineering, compared to fathers and grandfathers of typically developing children (Baron-Cohen et al, 1997, Autism). This is in line with higher rates of autism in geographical regions that have higher rates of people working in fields such as information technology, like Eindhoven in the Netherlands (Roelfsema et al, 2012, JADD). Such results are also consistent with the hyper-systemizing genetic theory of autism, which suggests that the genetics of autism overlaps with the genetics of strong systemizing talent. Mothers of children with autism in the San Fransisco Bay Area were more likely to work in STEM occupations (Windham et al, 2009, Autism Research). Mothers of children with autism also have elevated Systemizing Quotient scores (Grove et al, 2015, BJP) and faster/more accurate scores on the Embedded Figures Test of attention to detail (Baron-Cohen and Hammer, 1997, J Cog Neurosci). To date, no study has investigated the degrees that mothers of children with autism have studied, prior to having their child. 


To test if mothers of children with autism were more likely to have studied (1) a Narrow STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) degree, and/or (2) a Broad STEM (e.g., linguistics, economics, and other systems-centred) degree, compared to mothers of typically developing children.


We recruited 1,961 women, comprising 749 mothers of a child with autism, age 18-75 years old, registered at the online Cambridge Autism Research Database (CARD), and who had provided information about their degree type; and a control group of 1,212 age-matched mothers of a typically developing child who had registered at the online cambridgepsychology database, who had no family history of autism. All women selected their degree type from a drop-down menu of 180 degrees, and these were coded into Narrow STEM, Broad STEM, or Non-STEM, by two independent judges, with 100% agreement.


Of those women who had also completed the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ), mothers of children with autism scored higher than controls (p=0.0045), replicating earlier findings. A Chi Square test of Narrow STEM, Broad STEM, and Non-STEM degrees revealed that mothers of children with autism were more likely to have studied a STEM degree than mothers of typically developing children (Mothers of children with autism: 83%; mothers of typically developing children: 77.5%, Chi Square (1) = 8.84, p=0.003). 


This study is the first to show that mothers of children with autism are over-represented in STEM degrees in their graduate education. This association with risk of autism is likely to reflect both genetic factors (since maternal grandfathers are also over-represented in STEM) and prenatal epigenetic factors (since mothers of children with autism are more likely to have elevated endocrine conditions during pregnancy). Future research should test the genetic and epigenetic basis of this maternal group difference.

See more of: Epidemiology
See more of: Epidemiology