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Last Edited: 4/8/2009

On the Twin Risk in Autism
Written: 10/01/02

Autism is considered by many to be the most strongly genetically influenced multifactorial childhood psychiatric disorder. In the absence of any known gene or genes, the main support for this is derived from family and twin studies. Two recent studies (Greenberg et al. 2001; Betancur et al. 2002) suggested that the twinning process itself is an important risk factor in the development of autism. If true, this would have major consequences for the interpretation of twin studies. Both studies compared the number of affected twin pairs among affected sib pairs to expected values in two separate samples of multiplex families and reported a substantial and significant excess of twin pairs. Using data from our epidemiological study in Western Australia, we investigated the possibility of an increased rate of autism in twins. All children born between 1980 and 1995 with autism, Asperger syndrome, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) were ascertained. Of the 465 children with a diagnosis, 14 were twin births (rate 30.0/1,000) compared to 9,640 children of multiple births out of a total of 386,637 births in Western Australia between 1980 and 1995 (twin rate weighted to number of children with autism or PDD per year 26.3/1,000). These data clearly do not support twinning as a substantial risk factor in the etiology of autism. We demonstrate that the high proportion of twins found in affected-sib-pair studies can be adequately explained by the high ratio of concordance rates in monozygotic (MZ) twins versus siblings and the distribution of family size in the population studied. Our results are in agreement with those of two similar studies by Croen et al. (2002) in California and Hultman et al. (2002) in Sweden.