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Keywords:

  • Autistic disorder;
  • broad phenotype;
  • behavioral genetics;
  • meta-analysis;
  • parents;
  • psychiatric disorders

Background:  The genetic basis of autism has received great attention during the last few years. The psychiatric status of parents of persons with autism has been studied as part of the broad phenotype of autism.

Methods:  In the current study we examined all studies in which psychiatric difficulties of parents of children with autism were compared to those of parents of other children, as part of the broad phenotype of autism.

Results:  Overall, when parents of children with autism were compared to all other parents taken together, i.e., parents of typically developing children grouped together with parents of children with diagnoses other than autism, they were found to have more psychiatric difficulties, but this finding was inconsistent. Once type of comparison group (e.g., Down Syndrome, learning disabilities) and method of assessing psychiatric difficulties (e.g., self-report, clinical measures) were taken into account, different findings were yielded for the various comparison groups and methods of assessing psychiatric difficulties in parents, suggesting that parents of children with autism present more psychiatric difficulties, mostly in comparisons involving samples of parents of children with no known genetic risk (e.g., Down Syndrome).

Conclusions:  These findings suggest that in future studies, researchers should carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of various comparison groups and other characteristics, such as method of assessment, gender, and level of functioning, in attempting to delineate the specificity and universality of the broad phenotype of autism.