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What is the Connection Between Autism and Schizophrenia?

By D. Costa
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Autism and schizophrenia have often been linked in some form or another, from the early days of diagnosis to cutting-edge genetic studies. Until the late 1970s, autistic children commonly were wrongly diagnosed as having childhood schizophrenia. Although later diagnosing methods established a clear difference between autism and schizophrenia, genetic studies have established a link between the two, finding that they may have similar origins during fetal development.

The exact relationship between autism and schizophrenia is still under discussion, yet genetic studies have shed new light on the link between the two conditions. The mapping of the whole human genome, completed in 2003, greatly facilitated the finding of similar genes and mutations among autistic and schizophrenic patients. This prompted some researchers to believe that autism and schizophrenia share a common origin. Studies made in 2008 and 2009 found that autism and schizophrenia patients share certain clusters of genes as well as similar DNA fingerprints. Other studies found that patients with both conditions had unusual brain growth in their infancy.

Through the human genome study, scientist have found that people with schizophrenia and those with autism share an irregularity in the same genes. People without these disorders have two copies of these particular genes. Autistic people have only one copy and people with schizophrenia have too many copies. So, while they're fetal development origins may be similar, this study showed the two conditions may be genetically quite opposite from one another.

Another study performed in 2008 indicated that schizophrenia and autism — and the way the brain develops — may be linked to the genes provided by the father versus the genes provided by the mother. The theory purports that a shift toward the father’s side would result in a disposition toward objects, patterns and mechanical processes, with a noted lack of social development; this would mean the child may be more likely to have autism or similar conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome. On the other hand, a genetic inclination toward the mother’s side would place an emphasis on emotions and moods, the extremes of which can lead to schizophrenia but also bipolar disorders, depression, and anxiety.

In essence, if the theory is correct, this places autism and schizophrenia at opposite ends of the neurological disorder spectrum. Their approach, which widens the scope of research beyond that of mere genetics, has prompted other researchers to look at brain disorders from new angles. New studies based on this theory could very well bring along a whole new model of psychiatric diagnosing and treatment.

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Discussion Comments

By Wisedly33 — On Jun 26, 2014

I've seen stories about parents who have autistic children with "schizophrenic features." That must be terrifying for the parents. I've read the articles where they say they are simply unable to break through to their children, because they seem to be trapped in an inner world, populated by unseen people and objects -- usually objects, like talking cars and the like.

With the mental health system in the US like it is, I can't even imagine how these parents get any kind of therapy and/or assistance for these children.

By Scrbblchick — On Jun 25, 2014

It's odd how many traits autism and schizophrenia share, though, which still argues for the common genetic origin. In both disorders, people are often withdrawn and are seemingly living "in their own worlds." They often have problems interacting appropriately with others, as well as having angry/frightened outbursts where they attempt to harm themselves, often for no apparent reason.

The difference is, of course, that persons with schizophrenia tend to have severe hallucinations/delusions, while persons with autism are more likely to fixate on actual objects, like trains or flags. Both persons tend to focus on these things in preference to interacting with others.

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