What Causes Autism? What We Know, Don’t Know And Suspect

One of the great and enduring mysteries of autism is what causes the brain to develop so differently. The behavioural differences of many individuals with autism are so apparent that it seems intuitive that the causes would also be obvious.

But research over the past 70 years has indicated this isn’t so. Into this knowledge gap have come all sorts of weird and wacky ideas about the causes of autism: television, power lines, vaccines and sex position during conception. None have any credence, but have fuelled the mystery surrounding what may cause autism.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a widely held belief that autism was caused by parental coldness towards the child. The term “refrigerator mother” was often directed towards the mothers of these children.

Leo Kanner, the man who first described the behaviours that characterise autism, explored “a genuine lack of maternal warmth” as a possible explanation for autism. This inaccurate belief left a legacy of shame and guilt in the autism community for at least the following two decades.

Several eminent scientists eventually extinguished the myth. Two of them were themselves parents of children with autism, and they highlighted a major flaw in the theory: parents who fitted the “refrigerator” stereotype also had children who did not have autism.

Since this time, research has focused on biological factors that may lead to autistic behaviours. This has found very clearly there is no one cause of autism.

A variety of genetic factors are likely to be the ultimate cause of most cases of autism. These may work by themselves, or in combination with environmental factors, to lead a child’s brain to develop differently and result in autistic behaviours.


To examine the influences of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) on a given human quality, scientists study twins.

To appreciate how these studies work, it’s first important to understand there are two types of twins. Identical twins share all of their DNA and, assuming they grow up in the same household, they will also share all of their environment. Fraternal twins also share all of their environment, but only around half of their DNA, just like non-twin siblings.

Twin studies start by defining a clear population, say the metropolitan area of a city, and finding as many sets of twins as possible in that area where one or both of the twins have the given trait of interest – in this case, autism.

Scientists then look at the “concordance” of that trait – that is, the percentage chance that if one twin has autism, the other twin will also have autism. If the concordance is higher for identical twins than fraternal twins, then we can say the difference is due to the increased amount of genetic material shared by the identical twins, and that autism is influenced by genetics.

The first twin study of autism was conducted in 1977 on 11 identical and ten fraternal twins across Great Britain, where at least one of the twins had autism. Concordance for identical twins was 36%, compared to 0% for the fraternal twins.

While the study was only small in size, it provided the first evidence that autism may be genetic in origin. Since this pioneering study, more than a dozen further twin studies have confirmed this original observation.

The best current estimate is that there is a 50-80% concordance for identical twins and a 5-20% concordance for fraternal twins. This indicates a strong genetic component to the condition. The figure for fraternal twins – 5-20% – also represents the chance of a couple who already have a child with autism having a second child with autism (referred to as the “recurrence risk”).

Once scientists have established that the cause of a disorder is influenced by genes, the next task is to identify the exact genes that might be involved. However, after several decades of intensive research, scientists could find no one genetic mutation that all individuals diagnosed with autism shared.

It was these findings (or lack of findings) that led scientists to stop thinking of autism as one condition with one cause. They started viewing it as many different conditions which all have relatively similar behavioural symptoms.

This new view of autism has proved extremely fruitful in discovering subtypes of autism. For example, a number of conditions have very clear genetic or chromosomal abnormalities that can lead to autistic behaviours.

These include disorders that have abnormalities of the chromosomes, such as Down syndrome. While no chromosomal condition itself accounts for any more than 1% of individuals with autism, when combined they account for approximately 10-15% of all individuals diagnosed with autism.

The exact genetic abnormalities that may lead to the remaining cases of autism are not completely clear. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the genetic regions involved are likely to be very complex. Scientists have needed to develop new techniques to examine them.

The second is that it is probable the genetic mutations are very rare and complex. The DNA chain that forms our chromosomes contains more than 3 billion building blocks. To identify small pieces of DNA that may be linked to the development of autism among so many base pairs, scientists need to study a very large number of people with autism.

To date, no study has been able to examine the thousands of people necessary to identify with accuracy all of the small mutations that might lead to autism.[su_button url=”http://www.meddybear.net/?p=335&page=2″ size=”5″ center=”yes” icon=”icon: forward”]Next page[/su_button]