Limited genetic covariance between autistic traits and intelligence: findings from a longitudinal twin study

Hoekstra, Rosa A.; Happé, Francesca; Baron-Cohen, Simon and Ronald, Angelica (2010). Limited genetic covariance between autistic traits and intelligence: findings from a longitudinal twin study. American Journal of Medical Genetics Part B: Neuropsychiatric Genetics, 153B(5) pp. 994–1007.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/ajmg.b.31066

Abstract

Intellectual disability is common in individuals with autism spectrum conditions. However, the strength of the association between both conditions and its relevance to finding the underlying (genetic) causes of autism is unclear. This study aimed to investigate the longitudinal association between autistic traits and intelligence in a general population twin sample and to examine the etiology of this association.
Parental ratings of autistic traits and performance on intelligence tests were collected in a sample of 8,848 twin pairs when the children were 7/8, 9, and 12 years old. Phenotypic and longitudinal correlations in the sample as a whole were compared to the associations in the most extreme scoring 5% of the population. The genetic and environmental influences on the overlap between autistic traits and IQ and on the stability of this relationship over time were estimated using structural equation modeling. Autistic traits were modestly negatively correlated to intellectual ability, both in the extreme scoring groups and among the full-range scores. The correlation was stable over time and was mainly explained by autistic trait items assessing communication difficulties. Genetic model fitting showed that autistic traits and IQ were influenced by a common set of genes and a common set of environmental influences that continuously affect these traits throughout childhood. The genetic correlation between autistic traits and IQ was only modest. These findings suggest that individual differences in autistic traits are substantially genetically independent of intellectual functioning. The relevance of these findings to future studies is discussed.

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