What Is Autism?

The genetics professor describes one of the world’s most complex and controversial disorders.
  • Transcript


Question: What is autism?

Michael Wigler: Well, there are a triad of behaviors that are the earmarks of autism.  The include difficulty in social interactions, delay in the development of speech and communication.  And those are distinguishable and repetitive behaviors, almost obsessive-like behaviors.  

The recognition of this triad as a condition we call autism began only in the late ‘30s, and as the diagnostic criteria began to be more widely applied, more and more children were being called autistic.  And the definition, I think, I mean, when people now talk about autism spectrum disorders where a child has varying degrees of these abnormalities.  It is not, in fact, an extremely well-defined disorder.  It has sloppy boundaries to normal behavior.  We all know people that are awkward socially, there are many people who learn language late in life, and we all may know people that have stutters, or have obsessive behaviors, or even hang wringing.  So there is something of a continuum of all three of these things.  That’s not a condition whose boundaries are well-defined.  Yet, if you meet a child with autism, you can generally say that there is something profoundly wrong here. 

But it’s a hard disorder to define better than that.  And probably the reason it’s harder to define better than that is that the number of genes involved.  The number of underlying causes that can create this triad is very great.  For example, the syndrome itself is enormously varied.  And if you have listened to somebody who studies autistic children—children with autism, you’ll frequently hear them say that each child that they see is different than the next.  It’s not really a syndrome in the way that Down syndrome is a syndrome.  There are a variety of genetic disorders that are frequently—you can almost tell that the children who have these disorders have the same underlying cause, because they’ll actually look alike.  It’s not just Down syndrome that has that property, Progeria has that property.  There are a number of childhood disorders where the children who have these disorders actually look alike.  

That’s not the case in autism.  Each child has—is sort of wonderfully different than the next child, so there’s a huge amount of variability.  And I think this has confounded the general public because it appears that the rate of autism has been going up so dramatically.  In fact, I think that’s mainly due to increased diagnosis.

Recorded April 12, 2010