Are Twins More Susceptible to Autism? Delving into the Research

Explore the question, "Are twins more likely to have autism?" through latest genetic research and studies.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
June 6, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism in Twins

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that affects social interaction, communication, interests, and behavior. In twins, the occurrence of autism has been a subject of significant interest and research, especially in the context of the influence of genetic and environmental factors.

Factors Influencing Autism

Scientific evidence suggests that the development of autism in a child is likely influenced by multiple factors. These include both environmental and genetic factors, which together, contribute to the likelihood of a child having autism. The exact manner in which these factors interact and influence the development of autism is still a topic of ongoing research.

Twin studies have been instrumental in shedding light on the role of these factors. According to NCBI, several twin studies indicate that autism's presence within families can be best explained by shared genes rather than shared environment. The variation of autistic traits in the general population has been shown to be highly heritable, with heritability ranging from 40% to 80%.

Genetic and Environmental Factors

When delving deeper into the genetic factors, it's estimated that they contribute 40 to 80 percent of ASD risk [2]. Over 1,000 gene changes have been associated with ASD, with many common gene variations thought to affect the risk of developing the condition. It's crucial to note that individuals with gene changes associated with ASD generally inherit an increased risk of developing the condition, rather than the condition itself.

On the environmental side, factors such as prenatal exposure to certain drugs or chemicals, complications during birth, and certain maternal infections during pregnancy have been implicated in ASD. However, none of these factors have been definitively proven to cause ASD and are currently considered to increase risk rather than directly cause the condition.

In the context of twins, the nature versus nurture debate provides a basis for exploring the importance of these potential risk factors. Twin studies offer a unique opportunity to control genetic variations while studying the effects of shared and unique environments on a trait, such as ASD [3].

In essence, understanding autism in twins requires a comprehensive examination of both genetic and environmental factors. Such an approach could provide valuable insights into the complex interplay of factors that increase the likelihood of autism, thereby advancing our understanding of this condition.

Risk of Autism in Twins

When delving into the question, "are twins more likely to have autism?", several factors come into play, including the role of twin studies, the heritability of autism, and the impact of environmental risk factors.

Twin Studies and Autism

Twin studies have long been a favorite tool of behavioral geneticists and psychologists, providing a solid basis for exploring the influence of potential risk factors on traits or conditions by controlling genetic variations. In the context of autism, several twin studies have suggested that the aggregation within families is best explained by shared genes as opposed to shared environment. The variation of autistic traits in the general population has been shown to be highly heritable, with heritability ranging from 40% to 80%.

Heritability of Autism

The concept of heritability refers to the proportion of observed differences on a trait among individuals of a population that is due to genetic differences. In the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), genetic factors are estimated to contribute 40 to 80 percent of the risk [2]. Changes in over 1,000 genes have been reported to be associated with ASD, with many common gene variations thought to affect the risk of developing the condition.

Further, in about 2 to 4 percent of people with ASD, rare gene mutations or chromosome abnormalities are thought to be the cause of the condition. Mutations in specific genes such as ADNP, ARID1B, ASH1L, CHD2, CHD8, DYRK1A, POGZ, SHANK3, and SYNGAP1 are associated with ASD, often with other signs and symptoms.

Environmental Risk Factors

While genetics play a significant role in the risk of autism, environmental factors also contribute to the development of ASD. It's important to note, however, that the term 'environmental' in this context refers to any influence that is not inherited, including prenatal, perinatal, and postnatal factors.

These can include maternal factors like prenatal nutrition, maternal infections during pregnancy, and exposure to certain medications or toxins during pregnancy. Postnatal factors can include early life experiences, exposure to certain infections or toxins, and social or cultural factors.

While environmental risk factors can influence the development of autism, they generally do not act in isolation. Instead, it's the interaction between genetic susceptibilities and these environmental factors that appear to increase the risk of autism.

In conclusion, while twins may have a higher risk of autism due to shared genetic factors, the development of autism is a complex process that involves both genetic and environmental influences. Understanding these factors can help in early identification and intervention, ultimately improving the quality of life for individuals with autism and their families.

Genetic Contributions to Autism

The genetic factors involved in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have been a subject of intensive research in recent years. The study of gene variations, rare gene mutations, and their influence on brain development has provided critical insights into the genesis of autism.

Gene Variations in Autism

Genetic factors are estimated to contribute 40 to 80 percent of ASD risk. Over 1,000 genes have reported changes associated with ASD, with many common gene variations thought to affect the risk of developing the condition. These variations potentially alter the normal functioning of the brain, leading to the behavioral characteristics associated with ASD [2].

Rare Gene Mutations in ASD

In addition to common gene variations, rare gene mutations are also linked to ASD. It's estimated that 2 to 4 percent of people with ASD have these rare genetic anomalies. Mutations in genes such as ADNP, ARID1B, ASH1L, CHD2, CHD8, DYRK1A, POGZ, SHANK3, and SYNGAP1 are associated with ASD, often alongside other signs and symptoms [2].

Gene Association with ASD
CHD2 Yes
CHD8 Yes

Brain Development and ASD

Many of the genes associated with ASD are involved in the development of the brain. They impact neuron production, growth, organization, synapse function, and cell-to-cell communication. Changes in these genes relate to the development of ASD, with abnormalities found in the frontal and temporal lobes of the cortex, areas involved in emotions, social behavior, and language.

Preliminary results support the exploration of brain structural features as endophenotypes for neurodevelopmental disorders. Studies in autism found limbic structures in unaffected first-degree relatives were more similar to affected family members than healthy controls.

Moreover, specific areas of the cortex were different in healthy monozygotic twins of individuals with schizophrenia compared to unrelated controls, suggesting some abnormalities in cortical thickness were related to disease state and others to genetic liability.

Through understanding the intricate genetic contributions to autism, researchers can better comprehend the condition and work towards more effective interventions and treatments for those affected.

Twin Studies on Autism

Twin studies play a crucial role in the research of autism, a complex condition influenced by a multitude of factors. These studies offer unique insights into the genetic and environmental influences on autism, shedding light on the recurring question, "are twins more likely to have autism?".

Importance of Twin Studies

Twin studies offer a powerful tool for researchers to investigate the nature versus nurture debate, particularly in the context of autism. These studies control genetic variations, allowing scholars to assess the impact of potential risk factors on a trait or condition.

Twin studies have been a favored research method by behavioral geneticists and psychologists. They are primarily used to estimate the heritability of traits and to quantify the effect of shared and unique environments on a trait, such as autism.

For autism, this approach helps to separate and examine the role of genes and the environment, providing valuable information on the heritability of the disorder. It also aids in identifying specific genetic and environmental factors that may increase the risk of autism.

Historical Twin Research

The use of twin studies in research dates back to the early 20th century. The first classical twin study was conducted by Walter Jablonski in 1922, where he examined the contribution of heredity to refraction in human eyes. By comparing identical and nonidentical twins, Jablonski inferred the heritability of a trait [3].

One of the most notable twin studies was performed by Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. and his colleagues in 1990. They studied identical twins who were separated at birth and raised by different families. The assumption was that any similarities found must be heavily influenced by genetic heritage. The study revealed that about 70% of the variance in intelligence quotient (IQ) in their sample of identical twins was associated with genetic variation [3].

These studies laid the foundation for the use of twin studies in autism research. Over the years, twin studies have provided invaluable insights into the genetic and environmental factors influencing autism, significantly advancing our understanding of this complex disorder.

Gender Differences in Autism Risk

When analyzing the likelihood of autism, particularly in the context of twins, it's crucial to consider a variety of factors. One of the most significant variables is gender. Research has shown that there are certain disparities in the risk of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) between males and females.

Gender Disparities in ASD

According to a study published in PLOS ONE, there are significant gender differences in the risk of ASD related to the degree of prematurity at birth. The research found that females had a significantly increased risk of ASD relative to males at lower gestational ages, whereas males maintained the same risk of ASD regardless of the degree of prematurity. This suggests that gender plays a crucial role in the relationship between prematurity and the risk of ASD.

Prematurity and Autism Risk

The risk of ASD was found to be greatest for those who were more premature, with a higher risk for females at lower birth weeks and a lower risk for males at higher birth weeks. The study followed children born prematurely from birth to identify a correlation between birth week and a diagnosis of ASD, with a particular emphasis on gender differences in the risk of ASD.

Here is a breakdown of the incidence of ASD diagnoses according to the week of prematurity:

Week of Prematurity Percentage of ASD Diagnoses
25 weeks 22.6%
31 weeks 6%
After 32 weeks 8–12.5%

These findings underscore the importance of understanding the interplay between gender, prematurity, and the risk of ASD. It's clear that prematurity has a significant impact on the likelihood of an autism diagnosis, and this risk is further influenced by the child's gender. This knowledge can be instrumental in guiding further research into the causes of autism, as well as informing preventative measures and strategies for early intervention.

Family Impact on Autism

The role of family genetics in the occurrence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been a subject of extensive research. The likelihood of a sibling developing autism if it already exists in the family, and the degree of familial responsibility in ASD, are key areas of interest.

Sibling Recurrence Risk

The recurrence risk of pervasive developmental disorder in siblings of children with autism ranges between 2% to 8%, rising to 12% to 20% if siblings show impairment in one or two of the three domains impaired in autism. This indicates a significant likelihood of autism recurrence among siblings.

The relative recurrence risk for ASD varies among sibling types and geographic locations. In Denmark, it's 5.6; in Sweden, it's 7.9; in Finland, it's 8.9; in Israel, it's 9.0; and a much larger estimate of 15.6 was observed for Western Australia [6].

Comparatively, the recurrence risk ratio (RRR) for ASD was significantly greater for full-siblings than half-siblings, with an RRR of 9.3 for full-siblings and 4.8 for half-siblings. The RRR for cousins was estimated at 1.9, similar among both full-cousins and half-cousins [6].

Country Relative Recurrence Risk
Denmark 5.6
Sweden 7.9
Finland 8.9
Israel 9.0
Western Australia 15.6

Familial Liability in ASD

Familial liability refers to the degree of risk associated with the genetic makeup of a family. In the context of ASD, families where the oldest sibling has ASD and is female have a larger familial liability for ASD compared to families where the older affected sibling is male. Female-to-female sibling recurrence was largest with an RRR of 10.2, while male-to-male recurrence was smallest with an RRR of 6.6.

These findings suggest that the risk of autism recurrence is higher in families where the condition has already been diagnosed. However, it is crucial to note that each individual case is unique, and these figures should not be interpreted as a certainty of autism occurrence in siblings. It merely highlights the need for early monitoring and intervention in families with a history of ASD.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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