A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in July 2019 looked at more than 2 million people with autism in five countries to explore the link between autism and genetics. For years, researchers have sought clues as to the origins of autism. In the past, it has been theorized that environment played a more or equally significant role alongside genetics. Increasingly, research appeared to support a genetic cause although this opens up further complexities. The most recent research strongly reinforces this. The environment does play a part in that certain combinations of environment and genetics may lead to autism, but it is unlikely that normal choices in behavior or lifestyle on the part of parents are responsible.
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Questions About Genetics
Saying that autism and genetics are linked does not necessarily mean that autism can be inherited. While this may be the case, autism could also be the result of a mutation. Researchers examining the link between genetics and autism might look at both of these possibilities as well as what genes determine autism and whether different types of autism are caused by different genes. They may examine how autism might be related to genetic disorders and whether the environment acts on genes in a way that causes autism.
What Is Known
Little is known for certain about how genetics cause autism, but according to the Huffington Post, the study in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that roughly 80% of the risk factor for autism is genetic. This confirmed the findings of previous studies that have also indicated a large role for genetics. It is also known that autism does seem to run in families, but the pattern for inheritance is not known. Recent studies have indicated that there could be an association between autism and thousands of different genes, and this means that studying the relationship may be extremely complex.
Relationship to Environment
Although the study found that genetics were largely responsible, this does mean that there is still an environmental factor. However, “environment” simply refers to anything that does not happen on a genetic level and does not necessarily indicate factors that are easily controllable. What these environmental factors are remains largely unknown although many possible risk factors have been identified. These include older parents, poor prenatal nutrition, exposure to pesticides or air pollution, infection during pregnancy and more. It is important to understand that these factors are not fully understood and that they do not predict autism. For example, most older parents do not tend to have children with autism.
Genetics and Early Intervention
The knowledge that genetics is largely responsible for autism may provide some relief to parents who are concerned that their own actions caused the condition but frustration for those who feel helpless about a lack of control over the environmental element. However, knowing that there is a genetic component means that parents who are aware it runs in one or both families may seek early intervention, which can be significantly helpful to children with autism.
There are other unknowns about autism as well. For example, it is still not clear whether the apparent rise is due to better diagnoses. However, with more large-scale research like that published in JAMA Psychiatry, scientists may begin to better understand the condition and its causes.