Examining the genetic and environmental associations between autistic social and communication deficits and psychopathic callous-unemotional traits.


Background: Difficulties in appropriate social interaction are characteristic of both children with autism spectrum disorders and children with callous-unemotional traits (who are at risk of developing psychopathy). Extant experimental studies suggest that the nature of atypical social cognition that characterises these two profiles is not identical. However, ’empathizing’ difficulties have been hypothesised for both groups, raising questions about the degree of aetiological separation between social impairments that characterize each disorder. This study explored the relative contribution of independent vs. shared aetiological influences to social and communication impairments associated with autistic traits and callous-unemotional traits, indexed by parent-report in a population-based cohort of twins. Methods: Participants were over 5,000 twin pairs from a UK cohort (the Twins Early Development Study; TEDS), assessed for callous-unemotional traits at 7 years and autistic social and communication impairments at 8 years. Multivariate model-fitting was used to explore the relative contribution of independent vs. overlapping genetic/environmental influences on these traits. Results: Both social and communication impairments and callous-unemotional traits were highly heritable, although the genetic and environmental influences accounting for individual differences on each domain were predominantly independent. Conclusion:Extant evidence from experimental and neuro-imaging studies has suggested that, despite some superficially overlapping behaviours, the social difficulties seen in children with autism spectrum disorders and callous-unemotional traits are largely distinct. The current study is the first to demonstrate considerable aetiological independence of the social interaction difficulties seen in children with autism spectrum disorders and those with callous-unemotional traits.