A brief review of: Daniels, J.L., Forssen, U., Hultman, C.M., Cnattingius, S., Savitz, D.A., Feychting, M., Sparen, P. (2008). Parental Psychiatric Disorders Associated With Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Offspring. PEDIATRICS, 121(5), e1357-e1362. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2007-2296

The journal of Pediatrics just published a population study based on the national Swedish registry, which examined the association between parental psychiatric history and autism. The authors compared the parental psychiatric history of 1,227 of children with autism spectrum disorder and 30,925 typically developing children. Children were identified as having autism spectrum disorder if they were born between 1977 and 2003 and had a diagnosis of ASD recorded in the registry between 1987 and 2003.

Parents of children with autism were 70% more likely than parents of typically developing kids to have a psychiatric diagnosis. When both parents had a psychiatric disorder, the children were 100% more likely to have a diagnosis of autism. Schizophrenia was more common in both parents among children with autism as compared to parents of typically developing kids (90% more likely for mothers and 110% more likely for fathers). In addition, mothers of children with autism were more likely than mothers of typically developing kids to have depression (70%), and personality disorders (70%).

In summary, the study suggests that in Sweden, during the last 30 years, children with a diagnosis of autism were more likely to have parents with psychiatric diagnoses than typically developing children. This could reflect a non-specific, possibly genetic, predisposition in affected families for psychiatric conditions, including autism. It could also reflect that having a child with autism increases stress in the parents possibly leading to psychiatric diagnoses. However, the association noted by the authors was even stronger if the parental diagnosis was provided before the child’s diagnosis. One important consideration, these results were based only on kids who had a history of inpatient treatment. Those with a history of only outpatient treatment were not included. It is possible that the observed link between parental psychiatric history and autism applies only, or mostly, to the most severe cases of autism requiring hospitalization.

One last comment: It’s important to note that the rate of psychiatric conditions among even children with autism were very low. For example, schizophrenia was observed among 0.6% of the mothers of children with autism (compared to 0.2% of the typically developing mothers). 99.4% of the children with autism did not have mothers with schizophrenia. Therefore, the data only suggest that there may be a familial/genetic predisposition that is related to autism among very small subset of children with autism.


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