New Research Links Autism Traits to Gender and Profession

-A_person_s_sex_and_job_best_predicts_how_many_autistic_traits_th-a-1_1446550393423Psychologists at the University of Cambridge have found that a person’s sex and job can predict how many Autistic traits he or she has. Evidently, males who work in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics are more likely to have more traits that parallel those linked to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

In a Daily Mail article, researchers explained that having certain traits is not the same as being diagnosed with Autism; rather, these are attributes of personality and behavior which are commonly linked with ASD. This includes excellent attention to detail, difficulty in understanding another person’s point of view, and difficulty in switching attention.

The study entailed a half a million people taking a 50-question test and assessed how many Autism-linked traits they possess. This questionnaire, the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) includes questions that each represent a specific trait. This determines the amount of traits an individual has. The results indicate the number of traits an individual has. The questions include “I find social situations easy,” and “If I try to imagine something, I find it very easy to create a picture in my mind.”

In an initial study, the average score in the control group was 16.4. In comparison, 80% of those diagnosed with autism scored 32 or higher. On average, men score higher than women, and individuals in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, math) score higher than those who are not.

In the new study, researchers found that the average male AQ score was 21.6, while the female score was 19.0. Scores of people working in a STEM-related job averaged 21.9 compared to a score of 18.9 for people working in non STEM-related fields. These results suggest that ASD traits are linked to both sex and the way individuals think.

The study followed a discussion of Autism and Autism-linked traits on Britain’s Channel 4 health TV program Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic. Following the show, Channel 4 posted a link to the AQ test on its website and 450,395 people participated in the test. On average, these participants were in their thirties, but ranged from people in their young teens to those approaching their seventies.

As hypothesized, neither age or geographic region predicted a person’s number of traits; however a person’s gender and job were strongly linked to their score of traits.

Emily Ruzich, who led the study, said she is pleased that such big data was available to test these questions. “They provide clear evidence that Autism-linked traits are sex-linked and STEM-linked and this will encourage further research into why these associations are seen.”

It is crucial to understand that the AQ questionnaire is not a test to diagnose autism.

Dr Carrie Allison, another member of the Cambridge research team, commented: “The Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) is a valuable research instrument and AQ scores correlate with brain structure, brain function, social perception, and attention to detail, among other things. But it is important to underline that it is not diagnostic. It is only if the high number of autistic traits is causing stress and difficulties that a person may need a referral to a specialist clinic.”

Ongoing research into this issue may shed light on the connections of Autism and genetics, and suggest potential ways of understanding and discussing related issues.



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