Attentional switching forms a genetic link between attention problems and autistic traits in adults

Polderman, T. J. C.; Hoekstra, R. A.; Vinkhuyzen, A. A. E.; Sullivan, P. F.; van der Sluis, S. and Posthuma, D. (2013). Attentional switching forms a genetic link between attention problems and autistic traits in adults. Psychological Medicine, 43(9) pp. 1985–1996.




Background. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms and autistic traits often occur together. The pattern and etiology of co-occurrence are largely unknown, particularly in adults. This study investigated the co-occurrence between both traits in detail, and subsequently examined the etiology of the co-occurrence, using two independent adult population samples.

Method. Data on ADHD traits (Inattention and Hyperactivity/Impulsivity) were collected in a population sample (S1, n=559) of unrelated individuals. Data on Attention Problems (AP) were collected in a population-based family sample of twins and siblings (S2, n=560). In both samples five dimensions of autistic traits were assessed (social skills, routine, attentional switching, imagination, patterns).

Results. Hyperactive traits (S1) did not correlate substantially with the autistic trait dimensions. For Inattention (S1) and AP (S2), the correlations with the autistic trait dimensions were low, apart from a prominent correlation with the attentional switching scale (0.47 and 0.32 respectively). Analyses in the genetically informative S2 revealed that this association could be explained by a shared genetic factor.

Conclusions. Our findings suggest that the co-occurrence of ADHD traits and autistic traits in adults is not determined by problems with hyperactivity, social skills, imagination or routine preferences. Instead, the association between those traits is due primarily to shared attention-related problems (inattention and attentional switching capacity). As the etiology of this association is purely genetic, biological pathways involving attentional control could be a promising focus of future studies aimed at unraveling the genetic causes of these disorders.

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