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Connection Between Autism and Schizophrenia?

By November 12, 2008

A new theory linking schizophrenia and autism has intrigued the scientific community. According to the New York Times:
Dr. Crespi and Dr. Badcock propose that an evolutionary tug of war between genes from the fatherís sperm and the motherís egg can, in effect, tip brain development in one of two ways. A strong bias toward the father pushes a developing brain along the autistic spectrum, toward a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development. A bias toward the mother moves the growing brain along what the researchers call the psychotic spectrum, toward hypersensitivity to mood, their own and othersí. This, according to the theory, increases a childís risk of developing schizophrenia later on, as well as mood problems like bipolar disorder and depression.

In short: autism and schizophrenia represent opposite ends of a spectrum that includes most, if not all, psychiatric and developmental brain disorders. The theory has no use for psychiatryís many separate categories for disorders, and it would give genetic findings an entirely new dimension.

This is big news, and it's all over Google today. It certainly is an interesting idea to ponder. At this point, however, it's just that: an interesting idea.

One thing that puzzles me, however, is the description of the autistic personality as "a fascination with objects, patterns, mechanical systems, at the expense of social development." Yes, this does describe a subset of people diagnosed with autism. But it most certainly doesn't describe autistic people as a group. And it definitely doesn't describe my own son.

I know artists, authors, public speakers, fathers, mothers and actors with autism. I also know people with autism who can't grasp the workings of a mechanical system - yet are able to write exquisite poetry. My son, who is a wonderful storyteller, has no interest in computers, and only a passing interest in patterns and systems. Right now, his greatest fascination is for - get this - Impressionist painters!

Over time, I've noticed that there's an increasing tendency to stereotype people on the autism spectrum as having certain interests, abilities, challenges and needs. In fact, I have the sense that it's just that kind of stereotyping that has piqued the interest of the researchers cited in the Times story. Yet, as I learn more and more about autism, I find that the stereotypes really don't hold true.

November 12, 2008 at 11:28 am
(1) Known says:

I have schizophrenia,and I made the same suggestion to my doctor 2 years ago of the possiable link between it and autism, she said they were totally different. I knew.

November 12, 2008 at 11:46 am
(2) D says:

I am so glad that you write your blog the way you do, with frankness and clarity.
I agree with the fact that there are stereotypical views influencing the thought process of what the autism spectrum encompasses. Researchers do need to keep an open mind when looking for possible connections, but with today’s speed that news and particularly “sound bites” travel, those writing about and making claims about autism need to be extra vigilant so as not to create a stereotype that can be taken out of context and possibly become universally accepted as a norm.
Stereotypical mindsets just make our life advocating for our autistic loved ones, that much more difficult and adds another thing for us to battle against when it doesn’t apply to our child. – Been there- done that!…actually still having doing it…

November 13, 2008 at 11:44 am
(3) jane turry says:

I am more interested in the Bi-Polar/Mania connection to my son’s Autism, as now we have started yet another drug. This one happens to be used for Mood Disorders. We are hoping to control his new aggressive behaviors.

November 13, 2008 at 1:53 pm
(4) Moi says:

There is most definitely system and pattern in poetry. There is also pattern and system in impressionist painting. Unless you get it, you just don’t see it. ;) But just for an offhand example, think Seurat.

Also, your son likes Music, which is probably the epitome of a conglomeration of patterns…..

November 14, 2008 at 5:46 pm
(5) a.walker says:

a father’s genes pull his progeny towards an involvement with patterns, whereas a mother’s genes pull her progeny towards an involvement with psychosis?

please, convey my sympathies to drs. crespi and badcock; if they ask why, tell them not to worry about it.


November 22, 2008 at 10:53 pm
(6) navi says:

should be noted these are biologists, not geneticists or psychologists… ;0)

But yes a very interesting idea. I’d be inclined to think that if there was a competition between parents genes it’d be less likely to be gender-specific, and more that parent’s genetic traits-specific.

And yes, there are those that find it rather sexist to say mom’s genes win – psychosis.

I’d definitely like to see a link studied between bipolar disorder and autism. My autistic son’s father is bipolar.

November 23, 2008 at 9:53 pm
(7) Dan Cameron says:

This is because they are linking Autism with someone who is mostly on the logical side of brain and Schizophrenia with someone mostly on the emotional side of the brain.

It’s easier to think about the two sides of the brain as a balance for two speakers. Autism on the logical side of brain is like the balance turned mostly to one speaker of one half of the brain.

The reason men are more likely to experience this is they usually are on one side or another, where women use both sides at the same time…

May 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm
(8) NMDASpectrum says:

Still the obsessive narrow interests will lead an autistic person obsessed with certain types of art to pick it apart in a similar, logic, analytical way as an autistic obsessed with computers.

It makes me wonder what would happen to an autistic person obsessed with human social behavior. Would they wind up better with social skills than normal people, worse, or a combination of the two depending on what type of social skills?

An interesting thing is there is a great deal of overlap between schizophrenia and NMDA antagonist drugs and NMDA antagonist drugs also show some evidence of being an effective treatment for many of the symptoms of autism. Maybe the spectrum is based mostly on the NMDA receptors.

Interestingly NMDA drugs also show promise in treating catatonic schizophrenia. But a long time ago scientists classified autism as a type of schizophrenia. It could be that catatonic schizophrenia is poorly understood and is really the very end of the autistic spectrum. A catatonic person mostly just sits there, not speaking, not communicating. A person with absolutely no social skills or no ability to employ them if they got them hidden somewhere in their brain, and who is extremely indecisive(since indecision seems to be a common feature of autism), and who has a pure preference for sameness(what could be more same than just sitting or lying still and breathing 24-7) would fit the behavior of a catatonic person.

More studies should be done. If it turns out to be this simple, both schizophrenia and autism could be cured easily by just giving the person the right amount they need of an NMDA agonist or antagonist (I know that’s controversial just pointing out if this is the case then we’ve found the cure).

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