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Nature vs. Nurture? A New Piece Being Placed in the Autism Puzzle

July 17, 2017

A recent research paper indicates that, “Genes are bigger contributors to autism features than are environmental factors, according to a study of nearly 39,000 twins1. Autism traits such as repetitive behaviors or resistance to change are about 80 percent heritable, the study found.” https://spectrumnews.org/news/twin-tots-reveal-autism-traits-arise-mostly-genes/

de Zeeuw E.L. et al. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry Epub ahead of print (2017) PubMed


So what does this mean? Well, first and foremost, continued study is needed. Yes, it was a large sample size, and it was based on parent reports of their children’s traits. Good news is, parents seems to rate their children’s behaviors very similarly! It is important to determine if we would see the same thing with trained clinical raters. I hope a group of researchers is already working to answer that question!


From what this current research indicates, it looks like twins have similar repetitive and restrictive interests. Since I am primarily a clinical researcher interested in translational research, my immediate response to this research is what does this mean for clinicians and parents? Knowing that 80% of what is occurring appears to be “heritable” and “similar”, it is important that we look at how to address these similar behaviors. Early intervention is always key, and we know that parent invovlement is as well (Green et al, 2017; http://www.teresacardon.com/single-post/2017/06/14/Caregiver-Involvement-is-Key).  


My question is can we use different evidence based approaches (e.g., Pivotal Response Treatment, Video Modeling, Early Start Denver Model) with each twin to determine what type of intervention more efficiently and effectively remediates a particular behavior? I thought we would be further along in matching intervention to ASD traits by now, but we still have a long way to go. Could this new information on twins be a good next step on the intervention path? In the meantime, let’s keep engaging in naturalistic, behaviorally based early intervention strategies to support development for our youngest members on the autism spectrum.



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