Thanks to your support, our researchers are diving into the criteria used to diagnose autistic people, to see whether there is a genetic correlation too. Ultimately, we want to understand more about the condition and how it changes within the spectrum from person to person, with the hope of improving diagnosis for everyone. 

Working with other organisations and research teams around the world, a team from the Autism Research Centre has been studying the autism spectrum for many years. With a goldmine of data and willing participants available through 23andMe (a company that tests and analyses DNA to discover health, traits and ancestry), they had an excellent opportunity to take their research even further.

Read the full study

What's autism all about?

During an autism diagnosis, two criteria are assessed. First, any social and communication difficulties; then other behaviours, such as an unusually repetitive nature, special interests and the ability to systemize (i.e. to analyse and build systems to understand the world). 

Before this study, previous research had shown these two aspects (social and communication difficulties and the ability to systemize and analyse) were not related to each other – that people could have one or the other or both, but that there was no connection between the two. But it was never really proven using genetics.  

So our researchers wanted to test this using molecular genetics for the very first time.

“We were at a nice crossroad, where we had everything required. We had lots of data and the tools to investigate this hypothesis. But molecular genetics was never tried before.” – Varun Warrier, Autism Research Centre (in the photo)

After recruiting a group of participants, the team created an online test to investigate people's social and communication skills, and their ability to systemize and analyse. They then compared their answers to their genetic data. They found out three things:

  1. That people with the genetic variants that increase the likelihood of autism, also felt they were better at systemizing/analysing;
  2. That people without the genetic variants that increase the likelihood of autism, felt they were better at understanding emotions, at building friendship and family relationships, and scored higher in communication and social skills;
  3. Most importantly, that there is no genetic correlation between social and communications traits of autism, and the systemizing and analysing traits of autism.

A step forward to understanding the autism spectrum

This study is a crucial step forward in understanding the condition and what roles genes play in causing autism and various types of autism within the spectrum. It also helps us to understand the different sub-groups within the spectrum – some people only have challenges with communication and social skills, others have strong systemizing traits, and some have both, but the specifics of how genes affect this is still unclear.  

One day, we hope to be better at diagnosis, so people can receive the tailored intervention they need as soon as possible in their lives. 

It's only the beginning though. 

We know this study is only one step towards understanding. The team are actively working on trying to replicate the study with a much larger data set and in greater detail to consolidate the finding. 

You can read the full study by clicking the link below. And if you would like to help us fund more groundbreaking research to help us understand more about autism, please consider donating today.

Read the full study