• Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a condition that affects approximately 1 in 36 individuals. It’s a common neurodevelopmental disorder, but the causes aren’t entirely clear.
  • ASD seems to run in families, but the exact heritability isn’t known. This is because ASD seems to be caused by both genetics as well as environmental factors.
  • Some of the most common signs of ASD include a high pain tolerance, poor coordination, being greatly disturbed by loud noises, bright objects, or trouble speaking, among other issues
  • Genetic testing can be used to tentatively investigate a child’s risk for developing ASD, but these methods are still under development and aren’t entirely accurate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s estimated that approximately 1 in 36 children will be born with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is one of the more common neurodevelopmental disorders—and you might be wondering, especially if you or another family member has ASD, if autism runs in families. In other words, is autism hereditary? 

The answer isn’t quite so simple. Though it appears having a family member with autism increases one’s risk of developing ASD, scientists and mental health professionals are still unraveling the causes and genetic traits that are associated with autism. Learn more below.  

Which Parent Carries the Autism Gene?

If you’re wondering, “does autism run in families?”, you should know that autism has not been proven to “run” in a particular parent or gender. However, if you compare genetics or disorder expression on both sides of the family, that can be a good indicator as to the origins of the pattern of expression.

Though patterns of ASD-related traits can often be seen throughout a family tree, there is no one “autism gene” to be passed down. 

Is Autism Hereditary?

There is a highly heritable genetic component to it, but that does not mean it is necessarily “passed down” specifically throughout generations. So, for example, if you have autism, there is no direct correlation between immediate generations.

While ASD-related traits are often visible in relatives, given that ASD traits appear to be linked to many areas of the genome, heredity with ASD is not currently fully understood. 

How Likely Is Autism to Run in Families?

Autism is very highly likely to run in families—but not consistently, meaning that not every generation is affected, as stated above—and researchers aren’t sure what the specific cause of it is. We can moderately presume that if someone has autism, there is likely a pre-existing family history of ASD that the individual has inherited genetically. This can often be described as having “bright” or “odd” relatives in earlier generations, as our understanding and assessment of ASD symptoms becomes more robust. 

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What Is the Main Cause of Autism?

There is not one single specific cause for autism, though traits are seen to be highly heritable. This means that autism is most likely inherited but can also be caused by environmental factors as well as the possibility of genetic mutation(s) that have been passed on to children. 

The truth is that the primary causes of autism aren’t understood. However, signs of ASD are typically present early in a child’s development, and may include the following signs when seen in developmentally inappropriate periods: 

  • Lack of interest in socializing with family members or other children 
  • Becoming greatly disturbed by loud sounds, or changes to the living environment
  • Does not respond to having their name called
  • Difficulty speaking or forming coherent sentences
  • Fixates on certain objects, such as mirrors, wheels, or light bulbs, without understanding their purpose or connection to the environment
  • Poor coordination
  • Very high or very low tolerance for sensory input, such as tags on clothing, bright lighting, or loud sounds
  • Unusually high pain tolerance
  • Disproportionate reaction to changes in routine

ASD is viewed on a spectrum, ranging from mild to severe, and a professional’s diagnosis is required to be certain whether a child, teen, or adult has ASD. Someone with autism may not experience significant setbacks in their developmental years, teenage years, or adult life if their ASD-related symptoms are mild.

Is High-Functioning Autism Hereditary?

High-functioning autism is widely used as a term for “mild autism” or what once was “Asperger’s syndrome.” Again, there is not a singular answer as to why and how autism is expressed from one person to another—but we do know it’s a combination of inherited genes, environment, and individual gene mutations. 

Autism is viewed on a spectrum, and that spectrum can change or stay the same throughout one’s life. With proper supportive therapies, someone can live a successful life; meaning someone on the spectrum can live a full life in which significant impairments in disruption or functioning are minimized and goals and strengths are maximized. 

Therapeutic treatment for autism can include: 

  • Applied behavior analysis
  • Occupational therapy
  • Homeschooling with assistance from a behavioral therapist 
  • Sensory Integration Therapy 
  • Community support group programs
  • Certain psychiatric medications to help moderate impulsive behavior or mood changes

Is Autism Genetic Testing for Parents Available?

There are some tests that can be done in utero or after delivery that can help identify certain (but not all) chromosomal issues that might lead to a child developing ASD. At present, there is not a specific genetic test available specifically for autism that is 100% accurate, This is partially because no single gene “causes” autism. 

If you’re still wondering “does autism run in families?”, you might benefit from talking with your primary care doctor about the chances of your child or infant developing ASD. With professional guidance, you’ll be able to make the best decision for yourself and your family.