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Press Release - 06 January 2009

Who we find attractive could have implications for the prevalence of autism, say researchers

Previous studies have shown that men across the world generally find women with a lower waist-hip ratio more attractive. However, new research from the University of Bath suggests that fathers of autistic children do not share this waist-hip ratio preference, adding evidence to the proposed theory of assortative mating.

Drs Mark Brosnan and Ian Walker from the University’s Department of Psychology examined the perceptions of waist-hip ratio in fathers of children with autism to see if they were the same as those of fathers of children without autism.

Whilst studies in the past have shown a universal preference in men for a lower waist-hip ratio of around 70 per cent - such as the UK size 10 - the University of Bath researchers found that fathers of autistic children do not share this preference.

It has previously been shown that the waist-hip ratio of a woman, calculated by dividing the waist measurement by the hip measurement, is indicative of a woman’s circulating testosterone and oestrogen levels. Testosterone encourages fat to deposit on the waist, oestrogen encourages fat to deposit on the hips. Thus those with a lower waist-hip ratio have lower levels of testosterone.

Both genetic influences and a high-testosterone prenatal environment have been linked to autism, and so the researchers hope that their work might increase their understanding as to the causes of the condition, which impairs the way a person communicates and relates to people around them.

Dr Mark Brosnan explained: “Autism is widely regarded to have genetic origins which may combine with hormonal influences. We wanted to investigate the mechanisms by which these genes come together in a parental pairing, whether it is by chance or if it could be due to different preferences in choosing a mate – so-called assortative mating.

“This is a preliminary study of just over one hundred fathers and so the results are not conclusive, however it raises some interesting questions about how the person we are attracted to could impact on our offspring.”

The researchers are now inviting volunteers for the next phase of the study. Dr Brosnan said: “In the immediate future, we’d like to include mothers to examine what body shapes both parents of children with autism perceive to be attractive.

“The next phase will then be to assess the actual dimensions of parents of children with autism.”

The preliminary study is the first of its kind, is published this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder and was recently presented at the Autism Neuroscience Conference at the Royal Society.

Anyone wishing to take part in future research studies should log onto Dr Brosnan's website (see related links above).

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