Autism and Mental Illness

10 May

So, the family have been away for four days on holiday – our first ever holiday! A very, very good time was had by all 🙂

But in the meantime it seems like the Autism News Juggernaut hasn’t even slightly slowed. I came back to a deluge of emails on subjects touching on autism but one really caught my eye.

This is the story about autism being linked to mental illness:

Parents of autistic children are twice as likely to have had psychiatric illness, researchers have discovered…A child’s risk of autism was 70% greater if one parent was diagnosed with a mental illness, and twice as high as average if both parents had psychiatric disorders, according to a report in the Pediatrics journal. The finding suggests autism and psychiatric problems may sometimes have a common cause and genetic link.

I’m trying to get ahold of this paper to read for myself but its totally unsurprising to me that this should be the case. As some of you know I have manic depression (bipolar as its known in the US) for which I have been receiving treatment for approaching 30 years. I have long suspected that there is an overreaching link between many flavours of mental difference – a hypothesis, born out in the scientific work of David Porteous who has been involved in pioneering science regarding mental illness and DISC 1 mutations. Long term readers of this blog may know that DISC 1 has a high association with autism too.

Indeed, last year, David Porteous gave a fascinating talk at last years MDF Conference in which he talked about the DISC1 connection to manic depression and included ASD amongst the constellation of ‘mental disorders’ that have some kind of interrelationship.

So, this news was no surprise to me at all. Yet to some others it seemed as if it was a slap in the face. A comment from a reader who saw this item reported at CBC said:

So what is being implied here? That mental illness in parents is an indicator /cause of autism in off-spring, or autism in children causes mental illness for their parents? On behalf of parents of autistic children I feel offended by this type of garbage research…

Which is a frankly bizarre way to look at this study. The study itself seems to be saying only what is presented in its abstract.:

This large population study supports the potential for familial aggregation of psychiatric conditions that may provide leads for future investigations of heritable forms of autism.

Its step one. Nothing about _cause_ has been discussed as far as I can tell from reading the abstract. Does that make it ‘garbage research’? Hardly.

5 Responses to “Autism and Mental Illness”

  1. Joseph May 10, 2008 at 14:43 #

    A lot of times people dismiss research because it contradicts their beliefs or because they find it offensive in some way. Findings are either true or false. When I suspect something is false, my approach is to argue the merits of the data and/or methodology. The ideological stuff should be secondary to that, in my view.

  2. Ms. Clark May 10, 2008 at 23:09 #

    I think the paper is free, here:

  3. Kev May 10, 2008 at 23:39 #

    It is – thanks Ms Clark 🙂

  4. Regan May 11, 2008 at 15:58 #

    If it turns out to be eventually be a real connection, or at least within a familial subset, to dismiss out of hand as offensive or garbage, seems somewhat akin to finding connections to why a child might resemble someone else in the family as offensive or garbage. It might also speak to a reaction to the suggestion of mental illness or related genetic contribution, which in turn speaks to a societal reaction of such, which is not entirely surprising given how funny we get about mental vs. physical differences.

    Conversely, I’ve seen overextrapolation in more than one place already and suggested by some of the headlines that “see, the parents have a mental illness!”. That seemed an overstatement as well, and not what the paper seemed to be saying.

    Personally I just found it suggestive of a further area of research, as stated more than once in the text, and as noted by Kev.

  5. Emma May 13, 2008 at 17:15 #

    Bipolar disorder and asperger’s traits seem to run in my family ranging from mild to severe in different family members. So do asthma, eczema and ADHD. I think they are all deeply intertwined.

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