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The etiology of autistic traits in preschoolers: a population‐based twin study

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are highly heritable, but the exact etiological mechanisms underlying the condition are still unclear. Methods Using a multiple rater twin design in a large sample of general population preschool twins, this study aimed to (a) estimate the contribution of genetic and environmental factors to autistic traits, controlling for the possible effects of rater bias, (b) to explore possible sex differences in etiology and (c) to investigate the discordance in autistic traits in monozygotic and same‐sex dizygotic twin pairs. The Netherlands Twin Register collected maternal and paternal ratings on autistic traits from a general population of 38,798 three‐year‐old twins. Autistic traits were assessed with the DSM‐oriented Pervasive Developmental Problems scale of the Child Behavior Check List for preschoolers (1½–5 years). Results Mother and fathers showed high agreement in their assessment of autistic traits (r = .60–.66). Differences between children in autistic traits were largely accounted for by genetic effects (boys: 78% and girls: 83%). Environmental effects that are unique to a child also played a modest role. Environmental effects shared by children growing up in the same family were negligible, once rater bias was controlled for. While the prevalence for clinical ASD is higher in boys than in girls, this study did not find evidence for striking differences in the etiology of autistic traits across the sexes. Even though the heritability was high, 29% of MZ twin pairs were discordant for high autistic traits (clinical range vs. normal development), suggesting that despite high genetic risk, environmental factors might lead to resilience, unaffected status in the context of genetic risk, in some children. Conclusions It is important to focus future research on risk factors that might interplay with a genetic disposition for ASD, but also on protective factors that make a difference in the lives of children at genetic risk.