Siblings Could Shed Light on Roots of Autism


Traditional research regarding the correlation between autism and its link to siblings has mainly focused on studying two parents and two autistic children; however, new research is beginning to shy away from traditional practices and focus on learning more from siblings who do not have autism. Erin Lopes, a mother with a son diagnosed with autism and a daughter who is nuerotypical, or not on the spectrum, and her family volunteered to partake in a study focusing on their DNA and how autism relates to family genetics.

Erin’s children, Evee Bak, nuerotypical, and Tommy, autistic, cause many to ask one simple question: given that autism is a developmental disorder, one that impairs communication and interaction skills, why do girls get it at much lower rates than boys? In fact, according to a 2011 study conducted by an international team of psychiatrists and pediatricians, one-fourth of brothers of autistic children were likely to be on the spectrum. For sisters, that rate drops to roughly 9 percent. As mentioned, scientists have historically focused on studying a “quartet” of two biological parents and two autistic children. Today, more research is geared at understanding unaffected siblings, particularly girls.

Alycia Halladay, chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, and her staff want to understand why a diagnosis is often missing. Some sisters, according to Halladay, carry the same genetic mutations as their siblings but won’t actually develop the symptoms associated with autism. “We have to figure out what the protective factor is,” says Halladay. “Then we could use this information to develop a therapy for both boys and girls.”

In April, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced it had increased its estimate of children with autism by 15 percent, up to 1 in 59 versus 1 in 68 from a few years ago. Cracking the genetic code of autism is more important now then ever. Autism, now being understood in more detail, is much more complex than originally thought. Researchers are beginning to view autism as a series of disorders that work on biochemical pathways in the brain.

Ever since the first break in sequencing the first human genome in 2003, researches have been able to analyze all 3 million DNA base pairs to see mutations. Mapping genomes has helped many foundations, like the Simons Foundation, collect and store genomes belonging to people with autism and their unaffected families.

Nuerotypical siblings, according to one Stanford data scientist, will also be able to help solve the question, why do their brothers and sisters with autism have different gut flora? Families with autistic children and nuerotypical children often have similar diets, thus proving how unaffected siblings can further forward research regarding the matter.

The Bak siblings, both Tommy and Evee, now play in a band together, called the “Bak Pak.” Tommy appreciates his family donating their genetic material to further understand autism and he hopes it will lead to better services to improve communication and independent living skills for his peers with autism.

For more information regarding autism and its effect on children and families, visit our website or stop in today! Applied Behavioral Consulting has many resources regarding autism therapy, specifically in home therapy.