New Insight Into Autism

January 21, 2009

People with autism are not a distinct group, but instead experience extreme versions of traits that all of us have to a greater or lesser degree, many researchers
now believe. A major new study gives new evidence supporting this by showing that children with mild autistic traits, not severe enough for a diagnosis
on the autistic spectrum, are more likely to experience the sorts of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties we see in autism.

The study also outlines a significant difference between boys and girls of high intelligence, and how this correlates with autistic disorders.

A large study of children aged 8 found that in terms of social communication difficulties there was a smooth distribution from those with no impairments
through to those most severely affected. If autism is a distinct condition, caused by distinct underlying processes, such a distribution would be less

The study used the ALSPAC cohort and diagnosed the degree of impairment
through a questionnaire developed by the UCL Institute of Child Health. The study has just appeared in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent

A range of behavioural, emotional and social difficulties are associated with having autism. The research is innovative in showing that this association
exists right across the range of autistic traits – even those within the normal range but who had slightly elevated levels of social communication difficulty
experienced an increased risk of functional impairment.

“The researchers work in clinics for children with autistic spectrum disorders, noone is denying for one second that these children face serious disability
and deserve understanding and respect” said Professor David Skuse and Dr William Mandy, UCL Institute of Child Health. “They also may need diagnosis to
access the help they need. What this does suggest is that drawing a dividing line between those with autism and the rest of the population involves taking
an arbitrary decision.”

They added “Clinicians and those involved in education need to be aware that there are children who do not have autism but who nevertheless have somewhat
elevated levels of autistic traits – our research suggests that that these children are at slightly greater risk of developing behavioural and emotional

“We have also confirmed again that those with impairment come from the full range of human intelligence. The old idea that autism is linked to low intelligence
needs to be put to rest.”

The study yielded a striking new finding, showing significant differences in the relationship between verbal IQ and social communication competence according
to gender. “For girls, the better their verbal skills, the less likely there was to be impairment. However, for boys, high verbal IQ was not protective
against social communication impairment – there was a set of verbally able but socially impaired boys, sometimes very high performing in intelligence.
Anyone who works in academia is well aware of the type” said Professor Skuse and Dr Mandy.

These findings offer us some clues as to why there are so many more boys than girls at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum.

UCL Institue of Chilsd Health (

Reproduced from