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Genetic and Environmental Covariation Between Autistic Traits and Behavioral Problems

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 February 2012

Rosa A. Hoekstra*
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. rah58@medschl.cam.ac.uk
Meike Bartels
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
James J. Hudziak
Affiliation:
Department of Psychiatry, University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, United States of America.
Toos C. E. M. Van Beijsterveldt
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Dorret I. Boomsma
Affiliation:
Department of Biological Psychology, VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
*
*Address for correspondence: Rosa A. Hoekstra, Autism Research Centre, Section of Developmental Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Douglas House, 18b Trumpington Road, Cambridge, CB2 8AH, England.

Abstract

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Our objective was to examine the overlap between autistic traits and other behavioral problems in a general population sample, and explore the extent to which this overlap is due to genetic or environmental factors. Youth Self Report (YSR) data were collected in a general population sample of 424 twin pairs at 18 years of age, and their nontwin siblings. In 197 of these twin families, self-report ratings on the Autism-spectrum Quotient (AQ) were collected. Stepwise backward regression analyses revealed that of all 8 YSR syndrome scales, the Withdrawn Behavior (WB) and Social Problems (SOC) scale were the most important predictors of AQ scores, and together with sex, explained 23% of the variance in AQ scores. Genetic structural equation modeling showed that the overlap between AQ and WB and SOC was mainly due to genetic effects. About half of the genetic variance in AQ scores was specific to the AQ, with the remaining half shared with genetic variance in WB and SOC. Endorsement of autistic traits in a general population sample is associated with social and withdrawn behavioral problems and these problems partly share a common genetic etiology with autistic traits. However, most of the variance in AQ scores remains unexplained by YSR scores, and half of the genetic variance in AQ is unshared with WB and SOC. These results indicate that autistic traits have specific characteristics that are substantially genetically independent from other common but related behavioral domains such as social problems and withdrawn behavior.

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