Is Autism Genetic? Researchers Home In on an Answer

Alisa Rock, whose 10-year-old son Connor has autism, says parents of autistic children often align themselves with one of two camps: There are those who believe that genes cause the disorder, and those firmly convinced that environmental factors are to blame.


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Alisa Rock, whose 10-year-old son Connor has autism, says parents of autistic children often align themselves with one of two camps: There are those who believe that genes cause the disorder, and those firmly convinced that environmental factors are to blame.

“Then there are people who are in the middle,” says Rock, a Baltimore mom. She counts herself in this category, as she thinks that both genes and environment likely play a part.

She has, however, more questions than answers. “I personally am still a confused parent," she explains.

So it would seem helpful that new research on autism has just discovered a possible genetic link—an alteration near a gene called semaphorin 5A, which is thought to guide the growth of brain-cell extensions essential for neuron-to-neuron communication. But for some parents, including Rock, the research is just a stepping stone to answering the million-dollar question: What causes autism?

“I dont think they're there yet, and I dont think that [this gene is] the answer for every single child with autism,” Rock says. “Autisms just a set of symptoms. It doesnt really tell you about the child or what their disease is, really.”

And thats what the researchers say too.

“The scientific consensus now is that were not talking about a single disorder. Were talking about a collection of disorders that are probably related,” says Andy Shih, PhD, the vice president of scientific affairs for Autism Speaks, a New York City–based organization that supports autism research and advocates for people with autism and their families. “The current thinking is that there could be as many as 100 genes or more involved in autism.”

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Anne Harding
Last Updated: October 14, 2009

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