Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in (a) social communication and (b) restricted and/or repetitive behaviors or interests that varies in severity of symptoms, age of onset, and association with other disorders. According to recent estimates, approximately 1 in 68 children in the United States has an ASD diagnosis. In addition, a recent study of parent reports suggests that prevalence of ASD in the US could be as high as 1 in 50. Despite this growing literature on prevalence and incidence of ASD, less is known about the etiology of this complex neurodevelopmental disorder.
It has been suggested that parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may present with less recognizable autistic-like phenotypic characteristics or traits (broader ASD phenotype), leading them to highly systemizing occupations such as science, engineering, mathematics, computer science, accounting, and medicine. Others have suggested that many professionals with highly systemizing occupations are functioning with undiagnosed ASD. Using secondary analysis of data from two previous studies of children with ASD, the researchers tested associations between parental occupations and ASD diagnosis and the association of parental occupational characteristics on ASD severity. Children for both studies were recruited from the same educational, clinical, and community sources. Suspected ASD cases were determined by clinical interview and observation. Those meeting DSM-IV-TR criteria were administered both the Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R) and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) to confirm diagnosis. Parental occupations were established through demographic questionnaires during assessment. The researchers used the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system to classify occupational characteristics of interest. Parents were divided into those who had more non-people-oriented jobs (technical) or more people-oriented jobs (non-technical). For example, those working in engineering, scientific research, and accounting were considered having technical, white-collar occupations while those in healthcare professions were consider having non-technical, white-collar positions. Statistical analyses were used to explore associations of ASD status with certain white-collar occupations and occupational characteristics and to investigate differences in mean ADOS and ADI-R domain and total scores for parental occupation characteristics.
The results indicated that for paternal occupations, fathers who worked in engineering were two times as likely to have a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as compared to all other white-collar occupations. Additionally, fathers of ASD cases were seven times more likely to work in healthcare occupations and five times more likely to work in accounting/financial analysis. There was no association with a mother's occupation. However, children who had both parents in technical fields were associated with significant social impairment and a higher risk of having more severe overall autistic symptomatology.
The findings suggest that there is a joint association between parental occupation and ASD severity, as well as a relationship between paternal occupation and ASD diagnosis. These results are also supportive of a “broader ASD phenotype” in parents of children with ASD which includes individuals with mild impairments in social and communication skills that are similar to those shown by individuals with ASD, but exhibited to a lesser degree. The tendency of people with autistic-like characteristics to marry (assortative mating) might contribute to intergenerational transmission and having offspring with greater ASD severity. "Parental occupation could be indicative of autistic-like behaviors and preferences and serve as another factor in a clinician's diagnosis of a child with suspected autism. Medical students can be taught that this is one of the things to consider," said. Aisha S. Dickerson, first author of the study. More analysis should be done to determine what factors contribute to occupation choices, and how these factors, if identifiable, can add to the risk of communication or social impairment in the offspring of these individuals.
Dickerson, A. S., Pearson, D. A., Loveland, K. A., Rahbar, M. H., & Filipek, P. A. (2014).
Role of Parental Occupation in Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Severity. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 8, 997–1007
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is a school psychologist and author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a recent volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the new book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.