Barely sixty years ago we had no idea that autism existed, now it has been established as the most severe developmental disorder, impairing communication and socialising skills and the ability to process information as a whole and not in segments as suggested previously. Autism was found both by Kanner in 1943, and later by Asperger, in 1944. Both individuals investigated this phenomenon quite independently of each other. Asperger came up with Asperger’s syndrome, which is lead to be believed as a form of autism. There have been many different theories put across to explain why people acquire autism and why it is innate.
There are very definite signs that Autism may have a strong genetic component. Regardless of the most common theory to explain autism, the theory of mind and mind-blindness, researchers are looking at the human genetic structure as one possible factor in the puzzle of explaining autism. One way that researchers are learning about the genetic link with Autism is by studying twins and looking at the probabilities that both twins would have Autism.
In research at the MRC Child Psychiatry Unit at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, it was discovered that in identical twins in which one was Autistic, there was a 60% chance that the other would become Autistic as well. In fraternal twins, the rate was 0%. Even when the definition of Autism was expanded to include many conditions that are on the Autism Spectrum but are not classic Autism, the rate showed a comparable variation. In other words, Autism appears to have a genetic factor, however its development is also linked to other things, since if genetics were the sole cause, all of the children who were identical twins would have developed Autism.
This study also ruled out the possibility that Autism is purely caused by other factors and it does not have a genetic component, since children raised in the same environment, with the same experiences, should develop Autistic tendencies at roughly the same rate. It is also known that anywhere between 5 to 14% of individuals with Autism also have another known genetic illness such as Fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, or a duplication of part of the long arm of chromosome 15. Therefore we can conclude that a significant percentage of Autistic children also have other illness which are known to be inherited, and perhaps this fact could eventually lead to a better understanding of the mechanisms that predispose an individual to Autism.
Currently there are several studies, which are looking into the genetics of Autism, including one from Oxford University, which reports that they have narrowed the search for the genetic link to Autism to two regions on chromosomes 2 and 17. They feel that these areas may house genes that make a person more susceptible to Autism.
One main limitation of this theory is that it is hard to analyse the results from ‘autistic’ twins because as well as autism itself being rare, having twins with autism is even rarer. Therefore the evidence and data to support this theory cannot realistically draw conclusions. Another theory used to explain autism is the parent refrigerator hypothesis. This ideology was brought forward primarily by Leo Kanner and then, later by Bettleheim in 1967.
This theory takes place during a child’s development, which is a critical time in the childs life, learning about society and life in general. If the child is mistreated in terms of receiving a lack of love and affection (and possibly sexual or physical abuse – but not always the case) the child moves through a climate of emotional refrigeration. If there is a continuous lack of support for the child by the parents and the family, the child is likely to withdraw from society and become individualistic.
The research which tried to prove this theory, was heavily criticised. The samples of which the study was based on was unrepresentative. The parents studied were intellectual parents which may suggest they have high profile jobs and less time with their children, earning more money to support the family. The sample was not representative because it didn’t take into account the parents who are always with their children. Furthermore, it was reported that the sample size of the families studied in general were not big enough. One major limitation was the thought that if families were studied with twins.
One twin may be autistic yet the other may not. However, surely if one of the twins moves suffers from emotional refrigeration, the other must also be suffering the same situation. This raises the question: why isn’t the other child autistic? This could therefore make psychologists lead to believe that the genetic factor has a greater validity than that of the parent refrigeration hypothesis proposed by Bettlehiem.