Background: Recent research has indicated that autism is not a discrete disorder and that family members of autistic probands have an increased likelihood of exhibiting autistic symptoms with a wide range of severity, often below the threshold for a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.
Objective: To examine the distribution and genetic structure of autistic traits in the general population using a newly established quantitative measure of autistic traits, the Social Responsiveness Scale (formerly known as the Social Reciprocity Scale).
Methods: The sample consisted of 788 pairs of twins aged 7 to 15 years, randomly selected from the pool of participants in a large epidemiologic study (the Missouri Twin Study). One parent of each pair of twins completed the Social Responsiveness Scale on each child. The data were subjected to structural equation modeling.
Results: Autistic traits as measured by the Social Responsiveness Scale were continuously distributed and moderately to highly heritable. Levels of severity of autistic traits at or above the previously published mean for patients with pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified were found in 1.4% of boys and 0.3% of girls. Structural equation modeling revealed no evidence for the existence of sex-specific genetic influences, and suggested specific mechanisms by which females may be relatively protected from vulnerability to autistic traits.
Conclusions: These data indicate that the social deficits characteristic of autism spectrum disorders are common. Given the continuous distribution of these traits, it may be arbitrary where cutoffs are made between research designations of being "affected" vs "unaffected" with a pervasive developmental disorder. The genes influencing autistic traits appear to be the same for boys and girls. Lower prevalence (and severity) of autistic traits in girls may be the result of increased sensitivity to early environmental influences that operate to promote social competency.