Autistic traits in Down’s syndrome

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The pervasiveness of ASD [autism spectrum disorder] in children with DS [Down’s syndrome] in England and Wales is substantially higher than in the general population”.

That was the conclusion of the study by Georgina Warner and colleagues looking at the frequency of “autistic‐type behaviours” in a group of children and adolescents diagnosed with DS. Down’s syndrome is a genetic condition occurring as a result of an additional chromosome – chromosome 21 – which usually manifests as delayed development and some degree of learning disability alongside the presence of specific physical characteristics.

Reliant on results from the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ) – a parent report questionnaire used to screen for autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – researchers found that 37% of their sample met the cut-off score for ASD and 16% for autism. They also reported that children with DS presenting with autistic traits also showed more frequent behavioural problems than those presenting with DS alone.

Allowing for the fact that this was a study looking at screening for autistic traits and so not necessarily equating to a diagnosis of autism or ASD, there are several potentially important implications from these latest results. Screening for autism should perhaps be preferentially offered to those with DS. Warner and colleagues reported that the profile of autistic traits detected in those with DS “was atypical compared with individuals with idiopathic ASD” which should also be kept in mind when screening and assessments are carried out. The possibility of shared genetic or biological variables between autism and DS might also be an important consideration, particularly when talking about a heightened risk of autism in DS compared with the general population.


* Warner G. et al. Autism Characteristics and Behavioural Disturbances in ∼ 500 Children with Down’s Syndrome in England and Wales. Autism Res. 2014. March 24. 10.1002/aur.1371

Further commentary on this study can be found at: