Background: Broad autism phenotype (BAP) is a milder expression of the social and communication impairments seen in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). While prior studies characterized the BAP in unaffected family members of probands with ASD, the relationship between parental BAP traits and proband symptomatology remains poorly understood. This study utilizes the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire (BAPQ) in parents and the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS) in children to examine this connection. We hypothesized that in families affected by ASD, elevated maternal and paternal BAPQ scores would correlate with greater autism symptomatology in diagnosed children. In an extension of prior research, we also explored this relationship in families with typically developing children (TDC).
Methods: Two hundred and forty-five children with ASD, 129 TDC and all parents were recruited as part of a larger study investigating relationships between genes, brain and behavior. The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and expert clinical judgment confirmed ASD diagnoses in children. SRS was collected for all children. Parents completed a self-report BAPQ and an informant report BAPQ for their spouse; an average of self-report and informant report for each parent was used in all analyses.
Results: Mothers and fathers of children with ASD had significantly higher rates of BAP traits as compared to parents of TDC. Maternal and paternal BAPQ total scores were not correlated with child IQ in either group. In the ASD group, 10% of mothers and 21% of fathers scored above the established BAP threshold compared to 4% of TDC parents. Crude regression analyses showed that maternal and paternal BAPQ total scores accounted for significant variance in child SRS scores in both ASD (17.1%) and TDC (19.8%) families.
Conclusions: Our results suggest that broad autism symptomatology in parents is moderately associated with their child's autism symptomatology. This result extended to TDC families, suggesting that the BAPQ and SRS capture subtle, subclinical social variation in both children and adults. These findings could help define multi-generational social impairments in future phenotypic and genetic studies.