Parents of children with autism are likely to have similar traits, new study findsJuly 9, 2014
Scientists have shown for the first time that the parents of children with autism are more likely to have autistic traits.
Such traits could be an adult just being a little bit too repetitive or more focused on details than usual.
Previous studies have shown the siblings of children with autism tend to have more autistic traits than those related to children who are not autistic.
‘When there was a child with autism in the family, both parents more often scored in the top 20 per cent of the adult population on a survey we use to measure the presence of autistic traits,’ said John Constantino, professor of psychiatry and paediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis.
‘It could be that a mother or a father is just a little bit repetitive or slightly over focused on details.
‘We can measure the presence of those traits with our questionnaire, but higher scores don’t mean a parent has problems.
'In fact, there may be advantages to having some of those traits.
‘The problem comes when those traits are so intense that they begin to impair a person’s ability to function.’
He explained that too large a ‘helping’ of particular traits can have a negative influence on a child’s behaviour and social skill and that traits related to autism tend to be natural variations in social skills.
For the study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, researchers analysed data from 256 children with diagnoses of autism and almost 1,400 children who did not have the disorder.
Data from more than 1,200 mothers and 1,600 fathers of the children was also examined.
All of the subjects were part of the Nurses’ Health Study II, which has been gathering health information from more than 116,000 nurses since 1989.
Together with colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, the scientists used the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) to measure the presence of autistic traits.
People who score less than 59 on the SRS are considered normal.
When both parents had mild elevations in SRS scores, the study indicated that they were 85 per cent more likely than parents without elevated scores to have a child with a form of autism.
If only one parent’s SRS score was high, the likelihood of having a child on the autistic spectrum increased by 53 per cent.
Even among non-autistic children, elevated parent scores correlated with higher SRS scores in their children.
Professor Constantino said: ‘It turns out that people tend to select one another on the basis of many of the same traits that the SRS measures.
'Likes attract. If one person has a high score, he or she is more likely to partner with another person who also scores high.’
Such a partnership is likely to raise the chances that their offspring will have elevated SRS scores.
‘When both parents have scores at or above the top 20 per cent, the child’s score is 20 to 30 points higher than when neither parent has an elevated SRS score,’ he said.