Previous research has suggested that behavioral comorbidity is the rule rather than the exception in autism. The present study aimed to trace the respective origins of autistic and general psychopathologic traits-and their association-to infancy. Measurements of autistic traits and early liability for general psychopathology were assessed in 314 twins at 18 months, ascertained from the general population using birth records. 222 twins were re-evaluated at 36 months. Standardized ratings of variation in social communication at 18 months were highly heritable and strongly predicted autistic trait scores at 36 months. These early indices of autistic liability were independent from contemporaneous ratings of behavior problems on the Brief Infant-Toddler Social and Emotional Assessment (which were substantially environmentally-influenced), and did not meaningfully predict internalizing or externalizing scores on the Achenbach Scales of Empirically Based Assessment at 36 months. In this general population infant twin study, variation in social communication was independent from variation in other domains of general psychopathology, and exhibited a distinct genetic structure. The commonly-observed comorbidity of specific psychiatric syndromes with autism may arise from subsequent interactions between autistic liability and independent susceptibilities to other psychopathologic traits, suggesting opportunities for preventive amelioration of outcomes of these interactions over the course of development.
Keywords: Autism; Development; Psychopathology; Trait overlap; Twins.