Autism symptoms appear in most peopleThe difference between people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a neurotypical person may be the number of symptoms they have. A new study reports that some key symptoms of ASD are present in the general population. The difference between individuals with ASD and neurotypical individuals is that have only one symptom instead of a full set. The researchers discovered that individuals without ASD tend to either struggle with social situations or fixate on details, while individuals with ASD do both. The findings could help further our understanding of what causes autism.

For the study, 2,343 American adults took an online questionnaire, the 50-item Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). The AQ asks test-takers to rate whether they agree or disagree with certain statements, including statements like “I enjoy social chit-chat” and “I notice patterns in things.”

The average AQ score was 114 out of a possible score of 200. For comparison, the average AQ score among people with ASD is 142. The researchers divided the scores into AQ subscales examining certain symptoms: social skills, imagination, communication, attention to detail, and attention-switching. From there, the researchers noticed that the participants formed two broad groups. Approximately half of the participants reported more social difficulties, but few problems with attention to detail. The other half reported focusing on details, but few social difficulties.

The findings suggest that most people have one—and only one—of the core symptoms of ASD. The research calls into question the current view of autism as a spectrum of symptoms. The researchers instead suggest a ‘fractional triad hypothesis.’ This hypothesis advances the theory that that the three parts of ASD—social impairments, communication deficits, and restricted interests—are triggered independently. People with ASD have all three parts present, but most people have only one.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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