Time to give up on a single explanation for autism

Hans_Aspergersmall.jpgThis month’s Nature Neuroscience has published an opinion piece by three leading autism researchers arguing that we should abandon any theory that claims to explain all of the experiences and behaviours that are classified under the banner of ‘autism’.

This includes both simple psychological and neurobiological theories, and instead, the authors claim, we should focus on how a number of different processes could contribute to the range of thinking styles associated with autism and Asperger syndrome.

Similar patterns of behaviour and thought were independently described in children by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger (pictured on the right) in the early 20th century, later to be turned into the current diagnoses.

This was largely due to the work of Lorna Wing who became interested in the condition after having an autistic daughter herself.

The ‘autism spectrum‘ is associated with difficulties in social interaction and communication, difficulties with certain types of abstract thinking and a restricted or repetitive range of interests or behaviours.

In the Nature Neuroscience article Dr Francesca Happé and her colleagues argue that the evidence now shows that there are non-overlapping genetic influences on these skills, and that they are too diverse to be explained by a single psychological theory.

The authors conclude by suggesting why these traits tend to appear together, despite being potentially explained by separate mechanisms:

In light of the above research, we suggest that it is time to give up on the search for a monolithic cause or explanation for the three core aspects of autism, at the genetic, neural and cognitive levels. Clearly a question remains of why these three features co-occur at above-chance rates. At the genetic level, although the majority of genes appear to be symptom specific, there is evidence for a minority of overlapping genes between domains. At the cognitive level, impairments in more than one domain may interact; compensatory strategies may be reduced in the face of multiple impairments.

Link to full-text of Nature Neuroscience article ‘Time to give up on a single explanation for autism’.

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