Autistic Siblings Display Genetic Differences More Than Similarities

autistic siblings

Autism Spectrum Disorder includes such a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, and new research shows that the genetics involved are just as diverse.

A new study released this week demonstrates that children with autism, including siblings, most likely share more differences than similarities. The genetic risk factors vary widely from person to person even within the same family.

The study involved a technique called whole-genome sequencing. Instead of just sampling genomes, this approach includes a person’s entire genetic map, including all abnormalities. Scientists worked with 85 families, all of which had two or more children with autism.

Researchers focused on about 100 different genetic “glitches” that are associated with autism. It was concluded that 30% of the sibling pairs possessed the same genetic abnormality, while the remaining 70% did not. The children who shared a genetic glitch usually had similar behavior patterns, while the children who had different genetic risks had different symptoms.

The New York Times profiles the three brothers of the South Family. Their eldest child Mitchell is developmentally normal and has not received an autism diagnosis. A few years after their second child Cameron was born, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The parents were told that the odds of having another child with autism were extremely small. Then came Thomas, who like his brother Cameron, was diagnosed with severe autism.

But in the way their symptoms manifested, Cameron and Thomas are worlds apart. Cameron is very shy and prefers to avoid social occasions whenever possible. By contrast, Thomas is very outgoing and will approach strangers with ease. Cameron loves his iPad and prefers to stay sedentary; Thomas loves to explore and he shows little interest in computers.

When consulting doctors before Thomas’ birth, his parents were told that the odds of having another Cameron were “tiny.” Though their third son was diagnosed with autism, he is clearly not another Cameron. The biological and behavioral differences between the two boys, and those of so many other siblings on the autistic spectrum, indicates that genetic predictions (like the ones the South family received) are not accurate to map out the biology of a younger sibling.

Mapping out the genetics of autism is an extremely complex process. This study suggests that clinical practices that study an older child to predict the genetics of an infant are largely not effective, and scientists who study autism must study thousands of individuals before they can paint a true picture of the biological drivers behind autism spectrum disorder.

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