Washington: Researchers have said that environmental factors are more important than previously believed in understanding the causes of autism, and equally as important as genes.
The study also shows that children with a brother or sister with autism are 10 times more likely to develop autism; 3 times if they have a half-brother or sister; and 2 if they have a cousin with autism, providing much needed information for parents and clinicians for assessing individual risk.
The study led by researchers at King's College London, Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Mount Sinai in the US, looked at over 2 million people.
Using Swedish national health registers, the researchers analysed anonymous data from all 2 million children born in Sweden in between 1982 and 2006, 14,516 of which had a diagnosis of ASD. The researchers analysed pairs of family members: identical and non-identical twins, siblings, maternal and paternal half-siblings and cousins.
The study involved two separate measures of autism risk - heritability, which is the proportion of risk in the population that can be attributed to genetic factors; and Relative Recurrent Risk which measures individual risk for people who have a relative with autism.
Environmental factors are split into 'shared environments' which are shared between family members (such as family socio-economic status), and 'non-shared environments' which are unique to the individual (such as birth complications or maternal infections or medication during the pre and perinatal period). In this study, factors which are unique to the individual, or 'non-shared environments' were the major source of environmental risk.
In the other part of the study, the researchers looked at individual risk. In the general population, autism affects approximately 1 in 100 children. The researchers found that children with a brother or sister with autism were 10.3 times more likely to develop autism; 3.3-2.9 times if they had a half-brother or sister with autism; and 2.0 times if they had a cousin with autism.
The study has been published in the JAMA.