Title: Broader Autism Phenotype in parents of Autistic Children: Reality or Myth
Authors: Anke M Cheeren & Johannes E. A. Stauder. University of Maastricht. Neatherlands.
Source: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, (2008), 38, 276-287
This relatively short and focused article was published in the last issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. The authors wanted to test the hypothesis that parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders have mild autistic features, a finding that has been labeled the “Broader Autism Phenotype” (BAF). The authors compared the parents of 25 children with “high functioning autism” with the parents of 25 typically developing children. These parents were compared in regards to their performance to the block design task (a visual-motor spatial perception task that is part of a standard IQ test), the Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ – a test of common autistic features), and a reaction time task designed to measure how fast a person respond to social vs. non-social cues (gaze vs. arrows). The authors found that parents of children with high functioning autism scored similarly than parents of typically developing children on the bock design task and the AQ task, suggesting no clear differences between these parents in visual-motor spatial perception and global traits of autism. However, parents of children with high functioning autism were slower to react to social cues (as compared to non-social cues) than parents of typically developing children, an effect that was particularly strong for Fathers. There are a few things worth discussing. First, the authors examined parents of “high functioning autism” kids, however the group included a mix of children with autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and PPD NOS. Why is this significant? First because some researchers have discussed the Broader Autism Phenotype as a phenomenon possibly common among parents of children with Asperger’s disorder only. I believe this is in line with the author’s selection of the block design as a measuring tool. There is some evidence that suggests that children with Asperger’s disorder, but not children with high functioning autism, present a cognitive profile indicative of a Non-Verbal Learning Disability. In fact, this effect has been used as a possible marker of the proposed difference between Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism. Another interesting result is that reduced reaction time to social cues was more pronounced in fathers of children with ASD, which is consistent with some suggestions that the BAF is mostly limited to fathers and not mothers. The idea of differences in some measures of social cue processing amongst parents of children with autism is not necessarily novel or out of sync with the rest of the literature. We know there is a higher familial risk for autism when a parent or a sibling has an ASD (autism runs in families), and we know that there is a genetic component to these disorders. Thus, some differences (and in this case very mild and limited to reaction time) between parents of children with ASD (especially fathers and likely only in regards to Asperger’s) and typically developing children could be expected.
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