Moms of kids with autism may show subtle signs of the condition themselves

Moms of kids with autism may show subtle signs of the condition themselves

Autism awareness

  • Moms who have trouble with social communication were more likely to have kids with autism who presented with social and communication issues, researchers found. 
  • A father's autism-like tendencies can also impact their children's presentation of autism symptoms.
  • Researchers say that understanding subtle autism-like tendencies in parents of children with autism could help explain the role of genetics in the condition.
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The mothers of kids with autism often have subtle traits of the condition that are not enough for an autism diagnosis, but that could indicate a genetic link for autism spectrum disorder, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, looked at genetic and behavioral information from 2,614 families in which one child has autism. The researchers found that women who have trouble communicating in social settings tend to have children with autism who have more pronounced social and communication challenges, according to Spectrum News.

The findings could help researchers better understand the role of genetics in autism spectrum disorder, and how the condition presents in women. With autism becoming increasingly common — affecting 1 in 59 American children — a better understanding of the condition is critical. 

Some women could pass down a predisposition to autism 

The researchers looked at parents of children with autism using the broad autism phenotype (BAP). A phenotype is the way that genetic information is expressed. Researchers theorize that BAP includes subtle signs of the symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder. For example, a person might be sensitive to sensory stimulations or have some trouble communicating, but not enough to warrant an autism diagnosis. 

Understanding how common BAP is in the families of people with autism can help researchers understand how likely it is that someone with a genetic predisposition to autism will develop the condition. This is also known as genetic liability. 

"I was really excited to see that features of broad autism phenotype, and especially language-related features, seem to be really important in understanding how genetic liability is expressed and really linked to molecular genetic variation," Molly Losh, director of the Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Lab at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and lead author of the study, told Spectrum News. 

The study indicated that women with BAP could pass down a genetic predisposition to autism, even when they don't have the condition themselves. This is known as the female protective effect — the idea that it takes more genetic influence to lead to autism in females than males. That could be why autism is diagnosed more often in boys. 

Fathers can influence how a child with autism behaves

The researchers evaluated both mothers and fathers for BAP,using a questionnaire. Overall, dads had a higher BAP score — or more tendencies that could be associated with BAP. 

The researchers found that mothers and fathers BAP scores were linked to the behaviors of their children with autism in different ways. If dads had a rigid approach to the world, their children were more likely to have repetitive behaviors. If moms had a high BAP score, their children with autism were more likely to have symptoms related to language, communication, and social cues. 

This study is significant because while previous research has looked at the correlation between fathers' BAP scores and their children's symptoms, this is the first study to link mother's BAP scores with children's symptoms. 

Losh and Lea Davis, assistant professor of genetic medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and co-author of the study, plan to do more research into female BAP and how that plays out in families where children have autism. That could help researchers understand more about how autism presents in females. 

"The field is really good at identifying these features at a granular level for young boys, really not nearly as good at doing that for, let's say, adult women," Davis told Spectrum News. "That's another area that we're just starting to scratch the surface on, and this was an interesting way of kind of looking at some of those questions."

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