Saturday, May 31, 2014

Define Technical and Non-People Oriented For Me Again?

For those that haven’t seen it yet, there was a new autism study out of the University of Texas that was presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta.  You can read a press release about it here:  
The study looked at the occupations of fathers and assessed whether their occupation could indicate an increased risk of having a child with autism.   Interestingly enough, there did seem to be a co-relation.  The quick summary of the study is this:
-        Fathers who work in the field of engineering were 2 times more likely than average to have a child with autism.
-        Fathers who work in the financial industry are 4 times more likely than average to have a child with autism.
-        Fathers in the healthcare industry are 6 times more likely than average to have a child with autism.
These are interesting findings and I think they could give researchers some valuable information if they follow them up well.  Unfortunately, I see some major problems with the way the results are interpreted.  They categorized the occupations into "those in non-people-oriented jobs (technical) or more people-oriented jobs (non-technical)”   in order to see if fathers in technical jobs are more likely to have a child with autism.

If the hypothesis was that those in ‘non-people oriented jobs’ were more likely to have children with autism then it appears to me that this study disproves that.  Don’t jobs in healthcare qualify as “people oriented jobs” ?  Doctors, nurses, therapists, chiropractors and phlebotomists, work with people all day.  How does that qualify as ‘Non-people oriented’?
I’m also confused about the categorization of those who work in the finance industry.  Okay, they work on the computer a lot, but don’t we all these days?  People in finance are attending meetings, hosting potential investors and spending a whole lot of time on the phone using their ‘people skills’ to make deals, to get information and to foster trust.  Is there something I’m missing here?  How could this be a ‘non-people-oriented’ occupation?

Yes, engineers tend to work more with the technical than the personal, but they have a smaller incidence of children with autism than that of medical personnel and financiers.   This is hardly a slam dunk!

According to this press release, the researchers are responding to the results as if everything lines up with their hypothesis.  “...we speculate that people who choose these technical fields do so because their brains are wired differently. They also tend to be more antisocial, prefer to focus on one thing at a time, and not talk a lot. We see those traits in autism too,"

So they have high school level occupational stereotypes dubbed as ‘science’, they broaden the definition of ‘technical’ to be anything that involves math or science and regardless of the face time people in these occupations spend they call them “non-people oriented”.  Voilà! Their findings show that their hypothesis is correct!  Autism is inherited from geeky parents!  Stereotyped personality traits from one generation become neurological diagnoses in the next.  Who funded this study? Are these really the greatest minds? Are these the people we are counting on to help our kids have a brighter future?

When you think of engineering, finance and healthcare do you think “Those are professions for anti-social people who don’t like to talk,”?  I know I don’t.  People who chose those professions tend to be smart, goal oriented, driven, hard-working, well-educated and generally not averse to making good money.  They may actually be interested in the work that occupation offers, as opposed to looking for a way to avoid people.   Instead of deciding that their brains are wired differently, and therefore autism is inherited, why don’t they look at the environment or lifestyles of people who work in engineering, finance and healthcare.  Is that just too crazy to consider?

I guess it is, because there is no mention of looking into the environment of these professions.  Instead they are going to use these finding so that “medical professionals can consider parental occupation as one of the factors for autistic-like behaviors.”  So now a father’s occupation is counted as a child’s ‘behavior’ and therefore could be part of the reason for giving that child a neurological diagnosis.  Got it!

The person who wrote this press release goes on to say that autism affects 1 in 68 children and “most of them are diagnosed as an adult.”   Okay, the inaccuracy here is bordering on ridiculous.     The one in sixty eight number only refers to the year 2002 birth cohort that the CDC's prevalence reports recently published.  Those people are now 12 years old, hardly adults.  As far as I am aware, there is no data indicating that the majority of autistic people are diagnosed as adults.  The context of the press release makes it sounds like this pearl of wisdom comes from the CDC.  (It does not.)
Finally the article explains “Experts believe that the latest trend of finding partners at work might be behind the tripling of autistic cases since the 1960s. The cases have particularly skyrocketed in California's Silicon Valley, where partnerships between engineers, physicists and mathematicians have been increasingly observed.” Insert face palm here.

So meeting your partner at work is “the latest trend”?  Really?  Hey, my parents met at work in 1963.  I don’t think they even knew they were setting the trend for the 21st Century!   That explains the explosion of a neurological disorder?  Technical people just weren’t hooking up before the 1960, but now the Silicon Valley is offering a dateway to having autistic children. (Tripling comes nowhere close to describing the increase in autism incidence, but I’ll leave the math to those in ‘non-person oriented’ occupations.)
Is anyone looking at the environment in the Silicon Valley?  Lifestyles?  Are there any trends there other than meeting your partner at work?  If children with autism are more common among technical people maybe we should look at the effect of technical gadgets on our health?  I guess I just don’t get how genetics and ‘non-people oriented’ professions work.  L

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